Shrink a library #3 “Napoleon”, 1927

This morning I reached down my father Paul’s Napoleon (1927) by Emil Ludwig, sent to him in Switzerland in 1930 (when he was 18) by his mother nee VMR and VMB (as she was then). Paul wrote her to say how moved he was by the book, which he had been thinking of buying in the French, though deterred by the price. Picking over Ludwig’s reputation brought me to connections with my own formative reading. So this post serves two purposes: it’s a clue to 1930s taste (my father’s) and 1980s taste (mine).

DRAFT: this is a work in progress and anyway I welcome comment and correction.

Even now, I haven’t read this book. But I want to, and I want to keep it for its hand-written inscription, “Paul North, 1930” in what I think is his mother’s hand. But the book’s being on my family’s shelves means that I have long been mildly curious about its author.

Ludwig was born Cohn, in Breslau (when it was a German town), in 1881 (ten years before my hero, Edith Stein). His name didn’t mean much to me and I took the lacuna to be typical of my erratic reading but also of the gulf between my father as a cultured man and myself as something far more wayward.

A review on Goodreads remarked that Ludwig’s Napoleon was a match for Zweig’s Fouche. The point being, I think, that neither Ludwig nor Zweig were professional or academic historians,  and they were both inclined to tread an interesting line between facts about their subjects (which they knew well) and speculation as to their subjects’ interiority. (I wonder if that will prove to be the manner of Virginia Cowles when I get to reading her biographical work, as it was of Rebecca West in hers?)

Intrigued by the Viennese-born Zweig (whom I had never read and not really clocked properly) I warmed to the idea that he had written a memoir which was in effect a portrait of the late Habsburgian empire. It was perhaps mostly written in his exile in England as a Jew escaping Nazism, and Wiki says it was mailed to his European publisher the day before he and his wife killed themselves in Brazil, where they had lived for a couple of years. Sky Arts’ series on movie directors told me a couple of nights ago that Wes Anderson had created The Grand Budapest Hotel in homage to the Mitteleurop author whose work he had come across on the shelves of a Parisian bookshop. (I had previously in error wondered if the film was inspired by Harbl’s My Father Served the King of England which my second father-in-law, Peter Wymer, had lent me  perhaps 30 years ago and which I liked very much.)

Because I am drawn to looking at the Habsburgian empire and in particular Vienna in the 189Os I pulled out Frederic Morton’s A Nervous Splendour from my own shelves (not my father’s) to remind myself of its account of Vienna as a birthplace of modernism. Bleak rationalist truth-seeking in philosophy or in art and architecture  was a cuckoo in the nest of the city’s extravagant, neurotic, faux grandeur. It was, let’s say, a reaction to decadence. My interest in all that had been sparked by my reading of Wittgenstein’s Vienna in the 1980s (the book was a gift from Manny Hirschoorn, an importer and wholesaler of children’s clothes for whom – if I recall a teatime conversation right – Konrad Lorenz’s father had served as family doctor). Thinking to improve my understanding of that theme I went to the Internet Archive to find Wittgenstein’s Vienna Updated by one of the authors of the original. Happily it approved of the Morton account, which is handy. It also notes the Habsburgian trilogy of memoirs by Elias Canetti, the  sometime lover of Iris Murdoch and the “Dichter” who loomed large in the writing of John Bayley, whom he sort of cuckolded, and whose The Power of Delight is itself a useful manual for monoglot English readers keen to comprehend “the Continent”, “Mitteleurop” and all that. By the way, the Bayley volume nicely and deliberately treads a fine line: it acknowledges the occasional value to be had from academic, post-modern lit crit whilst insisting on the merit of his own genre (the “higher journalism”) and also of informed, experienced, more modest delight of cultured readers.


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Publication date

11 May 2022