My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I like to read epics. When I was younger, these were multivolume fantasy novels a la Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. More recently, when I find myself wanting a grand, sweeping narrative I tend to turn to history. There are plenty of epics here, rises and flourishing and falls, and at the end of whatever I’ve chosen I’ve learned a bit more about the shape of the larger epic we’re all still moving within.
In a historical epic, you want a good balance between detail and scope, something you don’t tackle for in-depth analysis but rather for a broad outline and a good, accurate story. In this genre I’d classify successful pieces like Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and Norwich’s (abridged) History of Byzantium as well as Keegan’s The First World War. Part of the appeal of reading works like these is that there’s no exam at the end; you can read a story that doesn’t have any direct bearing on your research of academic discipline. This gives just a bit more freedom to let the narrative wash over you, to get caught up in it like a good novel and enjoy it for the way the historians tell their tale.
My latest historical epic was an English translation of a French historian’s Rise and Fall of the Habsburg Monarchy, and it didn’t quite hit that perfect balance. We had recently spent some time in Gorizia and Trieste, so we had touched a small corner of this history. The Habsburgs, ruling house of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for centuries, offer a sort of bridge between the regalia and imperial splendor of the late Middle Ages and the rise of nationalism and modernity into the 1900s. They were a shaping force in central Europe for hundreds of years, with an empire that united Austria and Hungary along with lands now including the Czech Republic, Slovakia, parts of Poland, and into the Balkans and Italy. It also united dozens of linguistic groups and cultures and provided a buffer between the Ottoman Empire and the rest of Europe. It was in its height and glory that its capital, Vienna, became the cultural jewel from which things like the Vienna Circle and the work of Wittgenstein sprang. And yet its growing instability with the rise of nationalism helped trigger the First World War, during which the entire edifice crumbled abruptly.
Certainly a lot to cover in a single-volume treatment, and plenty of epic scope.
What we have in this volume though is a bit more crunchy, a lot more political history than one might want. We get loads of data about populations in Hungary, Austria, and Transylvania over the centuries, the development of agricultural production, economic details, and an in-depth examination of the political structure of these three kingdoms. Tapié spends a good deal of time highlighting the mechanics of how the three primary sections of the empire were united and stayed that way. He also focuses on art, architecture, and music of the empire over its development. For Tapié, as likely for the citizens of the empire, the monarchy was equivalent to the political union of these kingdoms, and vice versa.
The characters of the various Habsburg monarchs don’t make much impression on the pages as individuals. They come and go and are remembered for their policies, with only a few like Maria Theresa or Francis Joseph making a mark as human characters in the narrative. They seem there primarily to fill specific roles, sometimes roles that only seem given in retrospect, such as the assassinated heir presumptive the Archduke Francis Ferdinand, whose death at the hands of Serbian radicals set off the dominoes of the World War.
For an attempt at understanding wide swaths of the history of Europe, as well as the patchwork of languages and ethnicities that were bound up for a time together and now have become the various states of central Europe, this is a hefty journey. It doesn’t simply give you the exciting portions, and Tapié’s discussion of wars in particular become confusing morasses of names and places. Rather, it’s a study in the politics of empire– not people but institutions– and how unity was maintained among diversity for hundreds of years.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Welcome to the feast of laughter. The banquet has been set, the feast is open, endless, varied, and delicious– if you want rich fare and strong drink. Yet the banqueters are few. One of the opening (reprinted) essays of this, the third volume of a festschrift of sorts to the wild, wonderful, and largely neglected author R. A. Lafferty, sets out the imagery: those (in this volume and elsewhere) who have discovered and celebrate Lafferty’s works are the Family of the Empty Hall.
If this is true, I’m struggling to find a metaphor for what the third volume of Feast of Laughter is. It’s more than a toast given in one of the echoing corners of the hall. It is, perhaps, a congregation of fellow discoverers gathered around a table, in the light of a sputtering flame, discussing, sharing, tasting what they have found.
Feast of Laughter is now in its third volume, and rumor has it the indefatigable editors are putting together a fourth. Once was an event and twice a happy coincidence, but three times seems to imply we’ve struck a vein of precious ore (to abruptly switch metaphors here) and are following it out, mining it through, bringing to light as much of the rich writings and life of the spooky old man from Oklahoma as possible.
So what have we found this time around? Here we have another (thicker) collection of essays, analysis, correspondence, interview, and imitation of Lafferty. Some of it, as with previous volumes, is original, some reprinted from hard to find sources. Most all of it is pretty good.
Yet it’s also for a closed audience, of sorts. That’s not to say there’s anyone who would be unwelcome to the feast. But it is to say if you’re new to Lafferty you don’t necessarily want to start with this (though the volume does include two of Lafferty’s own stories, including “The Configuration of the Northern Shore,” which I’ve always found especially haunting). Rather, you want Lafferty himself first un-distilled and uninterpreted (perhaps by dipping into one of the three or four collected volumes of his fiction out or forthcoming from Centipede Press). But if you’ve read him and are bemused or enchanted, maybe a little confused or delightfully bewildered, and you want to get at his work from other eyes and angles, this is where you want to be.
Literary analysis is not necessarily my thing, and I find often find myself most annoyed with essays that repute to explain the deeper meanings of some of my favorite authors (some of the recent work on Gene Wolfe immediately springs to mind). But what I enjoyed about this volume is that several pieces focused on Lafferty’s novels, including interpretations or reprinted forwards for The Devil is Dead, Fourth Mansions, The Annals of Klepsis, and at least a few on Past Master, I found these quite helpful in approaching works that have seemed (and sometimes remain) a bit of a tangled thicket to me, even as I’m enjoying pushing through them. Reading these pieces helped me catch the things I had missed and see overall structures and themes click into place.
As far as the included correspondence and interviews, these are priceless and help Lafferty come alive, especially useful for those of us who discovered him after his time. The exchange with Alan Dean Foster, brief as it is, reveals much of Lafferty’s character and whets the appetite for the rumored forthcoming biography.
And then there is the part where people do their own stories inspired by the master. These are a nice garnish to the main course, but not really central to the feast (and I of course include my own contribution in this judgement). The two that stand out are “People are Strange” by Christopher Blake, which to me felt most clearly like a Lafferty homage, and J Simon’s “Bone Girl,” the best original piece in this collection, which could have easily found a home in any professional market and here really makes the rest of us look better just by being alongside it.
Flip the magazine over. There, on the back cover, is an image of the famous Door to Lafferty’s office. There’s a lot to be said (and a lot probably will be said) about this particular door, but this image alone is what you need to know about the man if you need to be convinced his words (and books like this filled with words about his words) are worth you time. It’s covered with clippings of art, diagrams, stickers, captions, and paintings in a contained sort of organized fractal. But totally covered so you can barely see a single spot of wood. Imagine walking down a hallway of doors (I don’t actually know where Lafferty’s office was– home or business or whatever) and seeing one like this.
Imagine the kind of guy who would be waiting on the other side.
Crack the cover, and come on in to meet him . . .