History in antiquity was deeds and speeches. So we know the words to the funeral oration of Pericles, which was a kind of Athenian Gettysburg Address, but no one recorded what it felt like to smell the offerings smoking in holocaust before the bone tents of the fallen, or to hear from afar the mourners howling like wolves, or to join the long grieving parade outside the city walls to the burial ground. Instead, the attention of classical historians was always directed toward the acts or words of great men.
Six hundred years after Thucydides invented objective history, Augustine of Hippo recorded the first long looks at the lives of ordinary men and women to survive to the present day. He is the world’s earliest memoirist. He writes how he hated learning Greek in school, but was moved to tears by the Latin epics. As a teenager he snuck into a neighbor’s vineyard to shake ripe pears off a tree so he could pelt them at pigs. Perhaps most memorably, Augustine records the afternoon in a public bathhouse when his first erection was witnessed by his father, who bragged about grandchildren for the rest of the day. In this last vignette, a modern reader can feel the steam of the hot baths, and hear the horsey laughter of the bathers echoing off the walls. With the remembering of these small moments, 1,600 year old men and women become breathing human beings rather than marbled statues in heroic poses. It may or may not be history, but it is life.
Peter Englund’s 2008 book The Beauty and the Sorrow, recently translated into English by Peter Graves, gives similar breath to the first world war generation. Englund chooses twenty individuals around the world – real characters whose lives he reconstructs from journals, letters, military records, and the like – and he shares their day to day experiences from the summer of 1914 until the autumn armistice of 1918. His subjects are mostly subaltern. He follows a Danish Jutlander mobilized into the Kaiser’s army, the American wife of a Polish diplomat, and a Venezuelan mercenary who fights with the Ottomans.
In an objective history, writes Englund, these actors would “appear as no more than tiny specks of light, flickering by in the grand historical sweep.” In The Beauty and the Sorrow, though, they are humans with full lives borne away by the frenzied tides of war. Incidents that loom large in the history books are remembered by the participants only in a cluttered haze – guns crackling, little figures far off scrambling toward the enemy trenches, the rot of swelling corpses.
Mostly they wallow in the quieter moments. Pál Kelemen, a handsome Hungarian cavalryman, has a particularly keen eye. In one passage, he waits at a railway junction with a newspaper and watches a young woman sitting at a cafe across the way. She won’t touch the pencil or postcard on the table in front of her until Keleman catches her eye. Then she bends over to address the postcard. A train full of soldiers headed to the front begins steaming away with the sound of whooping and shouts. Kelemen sees her tears welling up.
“For a while,” he writes, “she will not take her handkerchief; then she touches her cheeks with it. She picks up the pencil and writes a few words more. The conductor comes in from the platform, clangs a bell, and in stentorian voice shouts the arrival of the homebound train. The girl pays, and with the fuss and helplessness of a woman traveling alone, puts on her coat and gathers up her many little things. Suddenly she catches sight of the unfinished postcard on the table, takes it and tears it up, her gloved hands trembling, and throws it on the tablecloth. The busboy carries her suitcase out after her.”
Such knots of human memory make up the book. It’s English publication has caught a wave of the sort of life-in-a-day YouTube documentary that is popular nowadays. Art of this nature can’t help but show a common humanity joining characters and readers together across the oceans and continents and years. Englund calls his work an “anti-history.” It’s a fair enough term. The Beauty and the Sorrow complements, not replaces, histories of the era. A focus on common lives to the exclusion of international affairs cloisters away the realities of governance and geopolitics.
For all its humanity, Augustine of Hippo’s writings during the twilight of imperial Rome show us nothing of the migrations of horse peoples across the Asian steppes, or their bumping against the fortified border limes of the empire, or the endemic corruption of native Roman nobility, or any other wide angle action. In the same way, Englund’s anti-history ignores all of the rhetorical questions of an objective history – who, what, when, where, how, why – and instead gives us the human experience of the War of Nations.
(Don’t skip ahead to the ending, by the way. If you arrive at it naturally, it will break your heart.)