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Clio's Temple


Truth, history, and complexity

Posted on January 27, 2013 at 3:17 PM Comments comments (1)
My wife and I finally got around to seeing the latest movie version of Les Misérables yesterday. We'd seen the stage production twice before and loved both experiences. Since I wasn't sure how well the musical would adapt to big-screen presentation, there was some chariness about plunking down the funds to buy two tickets. My curiosity finally overrode my parsimony.

It was a pleasant surprise. Les Miz is one of those rare works of literature where a dramatic presentation may be better than reading the entire book. While Victor Hugo is rightly considered a titan of French literature, he is notorious for his bombast and for inundating his subject matter in a flood of prose (his poetry is better). The book is less complex than, say, your typical Dickens masterpiece, so there's less to be lost from the oversimplification that is required for dramatic presentation.

So how did the cinematic version compare to the stage production? The movie grabbed me at the outset, when it depicted Jean Valjean and his fellow convicts hauling a sailing ship into drydock. By contrast, the stage version depicted them doing roadwork; however, what I know of French history makes the maritime version seem more plausible.

Commentators have noted that the 1832 urban street fighting, depicted so vividly in the fight for the barricade, was inconsequential in the grand sweep of French history. 1848 was much more important, but it occurred after Hugo had already started writing his great work. Nonetheless, the silver screen version is superior in at least one key respect. While the on-stage presentation accurately conveys the close-quarter carnage of the final battle, the movie version gives a much better sense of just how out-of-the-way and insignificant the battle for this one barricade was. It makes the sacrifice of the students and workers more poignant.

So how would I rate this experience? I'd have to say that this is one of those cases where technology may actually advance stagecraft. Too often, that's not the case. I'll probably invest in a DVD at some point in the future.

A half-formed nation

Posted on January 18, 2013 at 4:17 PM Comments comments (5)
German history in the nineteenth century has long been one of my special interests. In fact, the "Henry Gorlitz" novels on which I am now working focus closely on Germany and its destiny during the years of its peak power and worst degradation.

It's therefore not surprising to note that today is the anniversary of the date on which Wilhelm I, "der greise Kaiser," was proclaimed German Emperor at Versailles. This was during the final phases of the Franco-Prussian War. Artistic depictions of this event depict Bismarck, the architect of both the war and of German unification under Prussian leadership, at the Emperor's side. Bismarck is shown as an impassive observer; in fact, he may have been thinking, "Well, I got what I was after. I hope no one else fouls things up."

That was the rub. The new state that came into being on January 18, 1871 was only half-formed. Under Prussian leadership, it had a very effective government, the strongest army in Europe, and would soon overtake Great Britain as the second-greatest industrial power in the world. What it didn't have was an internal sense of unity, of a common destiny. Forging that sense was largely the work of Herr Hitler.

That last-noted fact is, I think, a large part of the paradoxical role that Germany has played in the world in the last one hundred forty-two years. When Wilhelm II shoved Bismarck out of power in 1890, I think he sensed that the old gentleman couldn't do what he wanted to do - to make Germany a power to rival Great Britain. He himself couldn't do it. It took a half-educated Austrian jackanapes to give Germany her "place in the sun." The world has spent almost two-thirds of a century recovering from the results of his quest.

Paul Masson's advertising slogan used to be, "We will sell no wine before its time." Perhaps it's a basic point of statesmanlike wisdom to vow, "We will build no nation before it is ready." Doing so might spare the world a lot of anguish.