These editions published 2016, from translations published in 2013.
Reading these was inspired by two previous reads: Stefan Zweig last year, and Benjamin Labatut earlier this year. I really enjoyed Zweig last year, and so wanted to read more, and his choice of non-fiction topics is intriguing, especially his biographies. With Labatut, I enjoyed the “non-fiction fiction” of his stories of scientists, wherein he presents “fiction based on real events.” These works by Zweig are part short story and part essay, described by him as “historical miniatures”.
Published in various collections between 1927-1940 in German, and first translated to English in 1940, there are a total of 14 miniatures in the collection called Decisive Moments in History. The two books that I read compile 10 of these under the descriptive titles, and since they originate from a previous single collection (and each book on its own is quite short), I have counted them as a single book.
In Genius and Discovery, we read about the “discovery” of the Pacific Ocean by the Spanish, the start of the California gold rush, the completion of the first (and second) trans-Atlantic telegraph, the writing of Messiah by Handel, and the composition and discovery of La Marseillaise as the French national anthem (and an important plot point in Casablanca). The best of these were the two about musicians. The intensity and passion of Handel’s composition of Messiah are moving and miraculous considering his previously poor health. Rouget was not acknowledged as the composer of the anthem until nearly 100 years later, and I doubt many even in France are aware of his contribution even today.
In Triumph and Disaster, we read about Napolean at Waterloo, Scott in Antarctica, the fall of Constantinople, Lenin’s return to Russia, and Wilson’s efforts to establish world peace following the Great War. Assuming that the stories are factually correct (as best as can be for incidents centuries ago for which documentation is scanty and, as always, written by the winners), it was fascinating to learn about the knife-edge difference between success and failure in these moments, and the intriguing “what ifs” that arise. For example, Napolean’s defeat might have been averted if General Grouchy had disobeyed orders and followed his instincts. In Constantinople, the months of siege by the Ottomans was eventually undone by someone leaving a gate open. Naturally, for me, the story about Scott was of great interest and created a more sympathetic character than I’m used to considering of him.
These were enjoyable and enlightening books, but I suspect that the translation is less accomplished than the one I read of A Game of Chess and Other Stories, or perhaps Zweig’s own prose is less engaging in non-fiction than in fiction. There were few clever phrases or wry descriptions, and in a some places the story or language felt repetitive, as if either Zweig had lost his train of thought or the translator ran out of English words and so started to repeat herself. The best bit was in the last story, about Woodrow Wilson’s “failure” with the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations:
“A man who makes a concession can never stop. Compromises inevitably lead to more compromises.”
If he had just stuck to his principles, where would the world be now?
Overall, these essays/stories were less engaging than the fictional short stories, and did not rise to the quality of the Labatut work. I will likely (eventually) read a biography or two but will look for more of the fiction that seems to be a bit better, or at least better able to withstand translation.
Fate: As lovely as these little books are they are destined for charity, unless I think of someone local who might enjoy them.