R. R. Reno
The Habsburgs: To Rule the World by Martyn Rady does as good a job as one could hope for a one-volume survey of the long-lasting line of European rulers. At the dawn of the twentieth century, Austro-Hungarian emperor Franz Joseph epitomized the autocrat that so many thought a retrograde throwback to an era superseded by the new democratic spirit of modernity. But as Rady shows, the Habsburgs sustained their rule by way of a bureaucratic autocracy, not a personal one. In many ways, today’s technocrats find their prototype in nineteenth-century Vienna. Woodrow Wilson dissolved the Austro-Hungarian empire with the principle of national self-determination. But was our great progressive president on the wrong side of history? Was the supposedly backward polyglot Habsburg empire actually a foretaste of today’s post-national globalism of the Davoisie?
It’s Main Street for me, the 1920 novel that made Sinclair Lewis famous, and which, along with Babbitt and Arrowsmith, brought him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930, the first American writer so honored (the mid-century was the height of the Nobel Literature’s prestige).
It is remarkable for one thing: the sustained, relentless, enthusiastic, tireless, determined, unwavering, unrelieved contempt the author has for small-town America. In this, Lewis rivals Mencken.
We have something of a plot reversal. Instead of an innocent country girl coming to the city and finding squalor and deceit and disaster for herself, we have a city girl, idealistic and innocent (though often in an annoying kind of way), who goes to the country and discovers obtuseness, vulgar taste, anti-intellectualism, small-minded pretense, gossip, envy, ugliness, and cruelty. She wants to improve manners and culture, and only evokes resentment and rejection. The solid middle of Lewis’s America is a human wasteland.
It’s an early specimen of the contempt so often expressed today by intellectuals and academics. I like the novel, though—it’s a good read, believe it or not. One keeps hoping for a victory for our heroine, but still the deafening Fate of the American midwest looms.
The gorgeous cloth-bound, 1,312-page Penguin edition of The Count of Monte Cristo (translated by Robin Buss) has been sitting on my shelf, neglected, for some years now. However, as one of my 2021 resolutions—perhaps in an attempt to redeem 2020—I have undertaken to read this colossal book, and am pleasantly surprised to find that, while certainly not a children’s story, it almost reads like one. There can never be too many thrilling tales of adventure, love, and revenge.
Travel-starved readers will find the book an entertaining and welcome source of nourishment: Dumas’s observations of places, people, and their customs bear the marks of a traveller’s trained eye, transporting the reader to real, distant places—now suddenly more distant than before—on the magic carpet of fiction. The Count of Monte Cristo offers pleasant respite from a complicated world. For Dumas’s world is refreshingly simple and sensible: There is little ambiguity as to what is good and what is evil, what one should and shouldn’t do. In this world, justice will surely prevail.
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