I know. It’s hard to even imagine asking that question. You might not know a lot about any particular period in history, but you sort of feel (well, I do) that everybody knows it happened. And if you are a student of History at a reputable university like Uppsala, it seems a very unlikely question to ask.
But it’s one Peter Englund had to answer as a History lecturer, and it’s what made him write The Beauty and the Sorrow, which takes a look at WWI from the points of view of twenty randomly chosen people.
I have not read it, but I understand it’s a rather special book. Hardly surprising when the author is the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy. Partly because of this, I persuaded myself to attend his event in Charlotte Square on Sunday, and partly because the English translation was done by Peter Graves, who has become a bit of a household name in the Bookwitch family.
Peter didn’t disappoint. What he had to say was interesting, and he said it in excellent English. Not surprising for an academic, but still much appreciated.
The book is an experiment in historical writing, and an experiment which seems to have worked well. Peter was looking for multiplicity, wanting to get in as much of the war as he could. He had a matrix which he filled as he went along. He didn’t look to see what X did on a certain day; but who could fill the hole for that particular date.
The people chosen didn’t know what was going to happen, because they lived the war. You lived in a bubble of ignorance. From his own experience in the military Peter knows how easy it is to forget why there is a war. Momentum keeps it going. He found that the daily observations of the women were generally more interesting and more detailed than those of the men.
The book turned out better than Peter had expected. Which is nice.