Review: Europe, by Norman Davies

Review: Europe, by Norman Davies

EuropeEurope by Norman Davies

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Can one narrate time—time as such, in and of itself? Most certainly not, what a foolish undertaking that would be. The story would go: “Time passed, ran on, flowed in a mighty stream,” and on and on in the same vein. No one with any common sense could call that a narrative.

—Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain

Personal Preface

Lately I have been thinking a lot about time. Well, perhaps thinking isn’t the right word; I’ve been worrying. Ever since I moved to Spain, time has been a problem. What’s the proper time to eat? When do people sleep here? How long will my job last? What about my visa? Multiple clocks beset me, counting down and counting up.

Beyond my petty troubles, I have been thinking about time as an experience: how monotony speeds up the clock’s hand, variety slows it down, and nothing can stop it. I have been thinking about the inexorability of time: every passing second is irretrievable, every yesterday is irrecoverable. I have been spending a lot of time remembering, connecting my past with my present, if only artificially, and wondering how much the act of remembering itself distorts my memories. And in a Proustian mood, I have wondered whether a tremendous act of remembrance is the only defense we have against the ceaseless tide of time.

In the midst of our mundane concerns, it is all too easy to forget to remember. But is it crucial to remember; otherwise life can go by without us noticing. This is why we celebrate birthdays. Logically, it is silly to think that you turn from one age to another all at once; of course we get older every day. We celebrate birthdays to force ourselves to reflect on the past year, on how we have spent our time and, more chillingly, on how much time we have left. This reflection can help us assess what to do next.

Birthdays are just one example. In general, I have been finding it increasingly important to focus on these cycles, when a milestone is reached, when a process is completed, moments when the past is forcefully juxtaposed with the present. Finishing Norman Davies’s Europe was one such moment for me, and an important one. I first heard of the book from an old copy of National Geographic; it was in an article discussing the recent introduction of the euro (in 1999), a historic step in European unity. Davies’s book had just been published the year before, and the reporter had interviewed Davies about his thoughts on the future of Europe.

I read this article right as my love of reading began to blossom. Thus I dutifully underlined the name of Davies’s book, hoping to buy and read it some time in the future. But it was years until I finally bought a copy; and still more years before I finally started reading. When I first heard of the book I would never have imagined that I would finally read it, many years later, in Europe. But here I am, and it feels great.

The Review

Norman Davies’s Europe is an attempt to write a survey history of Europe in one volume, from prehistoric times to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, covering both Western and Eastern Europe. It’s an ambitious project. As you can imagine, an enormous amount of selection and compression was necessary in order to fit all this material into one volume. Luckily, Davies is adept at both of these skills; unfortunately, the book is still too big to carry around. It is big, fat, and heavy: thick enough to stop a bullet, hefty enough to knock someone out cold.

In terms of content, the book is both longer and shorter than it appears. Of the nearly 1,400 pages, only about 1,140 are actual history; the rest is given over to his notes, the index, and a lengthy series of appendices, on subjects ranging from the standard canon of opera, to death tolls in the Second World War, to the life course of an Austrian peasant household. Nevertheless, the pages are dense with text, in small font and with narrow margins; and the pages themselves are quite big. Moreover, owing to the huge amount of territory Davies covers, the book is almost nauseatingly packed with information, every page a summary of whole books. It isn’t the sort of thing you can breeze through.

Davies begins with a pugnacious introduction, in which he denounces all of his forbearers. For him, attempts to write European history have all fallen into various traps, by focusing too much on the ‘Great Books’, by their excessive length, or by their neglect of Eastern Europe. Davies snubs his nose at specialization, and wags his finger at academic fads; he bashes both the traditionalists and the radicals. I personally found this introduction to be an interesting read, but it does seem out of place in a book for the general reader.

For all that talk, you’d think Davies’s treatment would be highly heterodox. But that’s not the case. After an obligatory chapter on prehistory, he goes into a chapter on Greece, then Rome, then the Middle Ages, and so on. And even though one of his major bones of contention is the erstwhile disregard for Eastern Europe, he generally spends far more time on Western Europe.

The chapters increase in length as they approach the future, becoming progressively more detailed. For example, Aristotle and Plato must share one measly paragraph between them, but Gorbachev is given a dozen pages. As a result, the book gets more interesting the further you read. The coverage is only so-so for the ancient world; quite good for the Medieval period; and becomes really gripping by the 19th century. Davies attempts to cover all the major developments, but of course his space is limited. He sketches the historical individuals when necessary, but this is certainly not a “Great Man” telling of history. For the most part Davies focuses on economic, political, social, and cultural history, while paying less attention to intellectual and art history. Among the arts, he is strong on music but weak on painting, sculpture, and architecture.

The main narrative is broken up by what Davies calls ‘capsules’. These are mini-essays, ranging from half a page to two pages, on a variety of topics that interested Davies; they are set aside in their own boxes, interrupting the flow of the main text. This was Davies’s attempt to give extra color to his narrative, by focusing on little parts of the story that would otherwise be ignored. But I had mixed feelings about the idea. Half of the capsules were fascinating, but I thought many were uninspiring. And it was annoying to constantly be having to put the main narrative on hold, read a little essay, and then return where I left off. I thought it would have been a much better idea if he had left the capsules out completely, developed them into full-length essays, and then released them in their own book. I’d read it.

Davies is a writer of high caliber. He can adapt his style to any subject. His prose, although largely devoid of flourish, is consistently strong. In short, he has achieved that allusive aim of popular history writers: to inform and entertain in one breath. Seldom does he come across as seriously biased; but he is not afraid to be opinionated at times, which adds a nice touch of spice to the book: “Chamberlain’s three rounds with Hitler must qualify as one of the most degrading capitulations in history. Under pressure from the ruthless, the clueless combined with the spineless to achieve the worthless.”

I did catch two errors worth noting. First, Davies says that Dante called Virgil “The master of those who know,” when that epithet was really applied to Aristotle. Second, in the same sentence Davies calls Picasso, who was born in Andalusia, a “Catalan exile,” but he calls Dalí, who was born in Catalonia, a “Spaniard.” There were probably many more errors that I couldn’t catch, but in general the information seemed reliable.

Although this book is a survey history, Davies does have one central concern: the European identity. What does it mean to be a European? Davies doesn’t give any simple answers to this question, but instead traces how the European identity evolved through time. The reason for his concern is obvious. The Soviet bloc had only recently been dismantled, and now the European Union was faced with the task of dealing with these newly freed states. Davies himself appears to be strongly pro-Union; and in that light, this history of both Western and Eastern Europe can be seen as an attempt to give the people’s of Europe a shared past, in the hopes that they might embrace a shared future.

It was a bit strange to be finishing this book now. I can still remember the hopeful, enthusiastic tone of that National Geographic article about the new euro. People must have felt that they were entering a new age of European unity. Now the United Kingdom is threatening to leave the European Union, and several other countries are grumbling. The future, as always, is in doubt.


I finished the book on April 23, which is Book Day here in Spain. Yesterday was the 400th anniversary of Cervantes’s death; and today is the same anniversary for Shakespeare. To celebrate, I go to the <i>Circulo de Bellas Artes</i>, where they are having a public reading of <i>Don Quixote</i>. Everyday people, old and young, are lined up in an auditorium to read a page from that great masterpiece; it will go on for 48 hours. After that, I walk to the Cervantes exhibition in the National Library, where they have dozens of old manuscripts of Cervantes and his contemporaries on display. From there, I walk to the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians, where Cervantes was buried.

I was celebrating the completion of a cycle, and so was Spain. The past is alive and well in Europe.

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