Sunday, September 13, 2009

I just read Norman Stone’s World War One

I just read Norman Stone’s World War One, A Short History (Penguin), and I couldn’t put it down. At one point Stone refers to Oh! What a Lovely War, Richard Attenborough’s stupendous film, and this scholarly book has the same spirit. What comes through in the film in songs, in the high comedy of staff officers jumping on other staff officers’ backs, the bleak hospital scenes, the shockingly sudden increase of mass graves, is a scholarly work here, with all the significant events, facts, connections noted and explained. And the writer counts on his reader’s intelligence, nothing is belaboured; there are no redundant passages or redundant words in the book.

Richard Attenborough and Norman Stone could be twins, working in different fields but sharing the same critical and creative intelligence, the same eye for telling details that reveal the characters of historic figures as well as villains you never heard of. They share the same gift for economy, the same heart that beats for ordinary people whose lives are turned into tragedies by the big shots. For that very reason it isn’t depressing, because it is infused with a sense of human solidarity. However terrible the world is, we are not alone. If you loved Oh! What a Lovely War and want to know who did what to whom, this is the book for you.