Monday, May 20, 2013

A Review of A Thread of Years by John Lukacs

There are a couple of things that might help you to understand and appreciate John Lukacs. First, his career goal was to be a writer, not a historian. One can say that history, viewed from the wide lens of the Modern Age, to a close-up in Five Days in London: May 1940, to a microscopic view in vignettes as short as a brief imagined conversation, mark the range of his writing. Fortunately, for history as a discipline, and we as readers, he chose modern history as his subject matter. 

Second, you should know that one reviewer labeled Lukacs a “conservative polymath”, but Lukacs rejects the “conservative” designation because of his rejection of so much of American political conservatism. Instead, he considers himself a “reactionary impressionist”. What is that? Here’s Lukacs in an interview discussing the “reactionary” portion of his self-designation: 

“a remnant reactionary, a remnant bourgeois, a remnant admirer of the civilization and culture of the past five hundred years, European and Western." [Quoting his description of himself in his “auto-history”, Last Rites.] I say this even though I consider many of the dominant ideas and achievements of the past 500 years—for example, objectivity, progress, and materialism—to be insufficient, and I strongly resist these categorical formulations as absolutes.

Thus, Lukacs, by this self-designation as a “reactionary”, signals his unique political and historical perspective. But what about the “impressionist” portion of “reactionary impressionist”? For understanding this designation, we have no better guide than A Thread of Years

A Thread of Years has been labeled an “experimental work”, and Lukacs himself says that it’s neither literature nor history. I think, it’s both, with a good deal of essay and dialogue thrown in. In this work, using most of the years between 1900 and 1969, Lukacs writes short vignettes involving fictional characters within different settings in Europe and the U.S. He then comments upon and discusses the vignettes with his “alter ego”. The subjects of these vignettes vary, although a few characters appear in several of the vignettes. His locales and characters include Philadelphia and its environs (where Lukacs settled and taught), Catholic Churches, its priests and laity (Lukacs is Catholic and taught many years at a small Catholic college in Philadelphia), and Hungarians (Lukacs is a native of Hungry), along with other assorted characters and locales. Even those characters and locales with which he seems to have no direct connection are quite convincing. Any Lukacs reader quickly recognizes his erudition and his writer’s eye for character and place. 

The format of vignettes allows Lukacs to write in the manner of a novelist, a form which I have no doubt he could have mastered if he’d have chosen that path. By taking different years and settings, he gives us a sense of the ordinary human lives that co-existed with great historical events. He also demonstrates how culture and civilization have changed in the course of the first 70 years of the 20th century (although published in 1998, Lukacs stopped his vignettes at 1969). For instance, he addresses the decline of the Anglo-Saxon elite in the U.S. and rising tide of a form of populism. The intriguing thing about this project is his ability to create these brief sketches, these impressionistic word pictures of persons and places. In this he's similar to what we experience in the great impressionistic painters. I consider him a verbal Renoir, Manet, Monet, or Degas, but not one not limited to the fin-de-si├Ęcle. Instead, he uses a large chunk of the 20th century to locate his verbal canvasses.

The dialogues are more challenging. Like native European intellectuals that I’ve read, he alludes to sources and experiences that often elude me. The dialogues also seem to allow him to acknowledge his biases and prejudices (for instance, he does not like the film Casablanca), thereby both airing them and letting them stand or fall as the reader deems appropriate. Sometimes I felt as if I was overhearing a conversation in a foreign language that I knew a bit of. I could pick-up bits and pieces, but I still felt as though I missed the greater whole. On the other hand, we learn from listening to the adults, so the benefit far outweighs any frustration. 

In preparing for this review and blog, I found that I’d labeled 21 earlier blog entries as mentioning, if not focused upon, John Lukacs. This entry makes 22, and assuming my good fortune to keep on reading and learning, you can expect many more. After all, while out of the U.S., he’s published another book. In addition, with Lukacs, I’ve found I can re-read with continued benefit and enjoyment. What better recommendation for an author?


David McMahon said...

John Lukacs is an acquired taste but one not likely to be abandoned once acquired. Always liked notion that history is more about problems than facts. And the historian should be in the business of reducing the level of untruth -- DM

Stephen N. Greenleaf said...

Thanks very much for your comment.

Describing Lukacs as "an acquired taste" is perfect. "Quirky" and "different" could also serve as initial responses, but then you want to go back for more. Although it would gall him given his criticism of her, reading him reminds me of first reading Hannah Arendt--in some ways way over my head and totally resistant to placing in a familiar pigeon-hole. You also have an excellent point that no matter the topic, he brings a keen sense of history as a discipline to topic. I've gotten a great deal from his reflections on history as a discipline and practice.