After a wonderfully restful break, I’m back on campus. With the students away, it’s peaceful and I have time to take the dogs on extra-long walks: their favorite is the Dairy Loop so that they can visit the horses. Very soon, though, it will begin to seem slightly too peaceful and I’ll be eagerly looking forward to the day the students return.
This trip brought the opportunity to read some things I’ve been hoping to get to for a while. First, I finished Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace (started a while ago but laid aside in the press of the end of the semester.) Kate Summerscale writes lively and thoughtful histories of 19th-century cases. A while back I blogged about a previous book of hers, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher; to my delight I enjoyed Mrs. Robinson’s story even more than I had Mr. Whicher’s. Summerscale tells the story of the Robinson’s case in the newly-created English divorce court to raise questions about the evidentiary status of Mrs. Robinson’s diary. Was it a record of actual events? The expression of a neurotic and confused imagination? A series of quasi-literary fictional exercises? Much hinged on these ultimately unanswerable questions.
Having finished Mrs. Robinson’s story, I turned at last to a book given to me by a very good friend last summer — The Hare With Amber Eyes. If you haven’t read this, I think you should. As soon as possible. As Roger Cohen says, in a New York Times op-ed, this book is “a meditation on Jewish upheaval and loss.” Tracing the history of a family collection of netsuke, Edmund de Waal tells the story of the Ephrussis — a vastly wealthy, multinational, cosmopolitan Jewish family — from the late years of the 19th century to the beginning of the 21st. Connected with avant-garde literary and artistic circles in Paris and Vienna, consulted by governments, stalwarts of influential clubs and civic organizations, the Ephrussis could simply not conceive that their Jewish identity might still put everything they had at risk. But of course, by 1938 it was apparent that indeed it could and did: I’ll confess that I cried while reading the chapter on the Anschluss. And I cried again, later in the book, while reading about how the netsuke collection was saved and returned to the family. For this is a story not only about upheaval and loss but also about memory, and survival, and the consolation of preserving both objects and stories.
Often, I find that I discover commonalities in books I read one after another. These two, different as they are in tone and topic, both illustrate a historian’s research process. Summerscale and de Waal set out to answer questions they have about the past, and both document the twists and turns and clarities and uncertainties that they encounter in doing so. Both reminded me of how richly challenging it is to attempt to understand the ways that other lives in other times were different from our own. . .
PS: I read two other books on this trip as well: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (charming fun) and The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. (Fascinating and probably deserving of its own post.)