Monday, March 6, 2017

Germania

Germania: In Wayward Pursuit of the Germans and Their History, by Simon Winder

I was attracted to this book as soon as I saw it in the store, and it's been on my TBR shelf for a little while.  Once I began reading, I was charmed by Winder's fun writing style and by his prompt mention of Regensburg, the only German city I have really properly visited.  Right there in the introduction he talked about the centuries-old bratwurst restaurant right by the bridge!  I've BEEN to that restaurant, and so from that moment on I was completely enamored.  Winder did not disappoint.

Simon Winder has an unusual love for many things German, and here he indulges it freely, wandering around history, poking here and there for treasure.  He stops at 1933 for obvious reasons, but especially because a large part of his goal in writing is to bring up a lot of the wonderful stuff about Germany that got buried by the horrific 20th century.  The result is a really neat book that I got a big kick out of; I was constantly reading fun bits out loud to whoever was nearby.  Winder's overall style is light, but he really packs in the content and hits many somber notes, including a fair amount of very interesting analysis.  It's not a fast read by any means, but it is a great one if German history is of any interest to you.

Winder starts with Tacitus and goes right through to the 20th century.  It's sort of chronological, in that the bulk of the Holy Roman Empire material is in the first half and the 20th century is mostly near the end, but really, he's all over the place.  And since the very idea of "Germany" was pretty loose for a very long time, he has to bring in a certain amount of French, Central European, Austro-Hungarian, and everybody else's history.  Winder delights in tiny German duchies, principalities, and free cities; the odder and more obscure they are, the better.  And happily for me, he keeps coming back to Regensburg every so often.

Regensburg

I think Winder probably formed his style in the Bill Bryson mold; he loves unexpected adverbs, wandering around, and witty remarks.  But honestly, Winder completely outshines Bryson in several important respects.  First, he does not complain, and second, he doesn't put himself right in the foreground.  If Winder tells you a particular city is grim or depressing, it's because of the city's own history and not because he hated the hotel staff there.  Most of the time, he's talking about Germany, not about himself -- and when he does, it's interesting.  Third, he doesn't constantly talk about how much beer he's drinking (there is plenty of beer, obviously, but I don't know how many pints he downed).  Fourth, this ends up being a book with a good deal more depth and history to it.

I found it necessary to read with my tablet right next to me, because every few pages, Winder describes some painting, building, or monument that I have never heard of, and then I had to look it up.  He made them all sound so fascinating, and quite often they really were, though I did sometimes think (upon gazing at the actual object described) that he had gotten a little exaggerated in his highly colored, but always entertaining, descriptions. 

My copy of Germania is bristling with little sticky bookmarks; some are for things to look up later, and most are funny bits to quote.  But there are far too many, so I'll have to cut it down a good bit.  Here are a couple:
...the Senior and Junior Princes of Reuss were rulers of a few valleys in Thuringia from at least the twelfth century...Every male member of the family was called Henry as a homage to the emperor Henry VI's patronage, which was crazy enough, but, even worse, every male member was issued with a number rather than just the ruling prince, throwing up such challenges to sanity as Henry LXVII.
The English style of park, always contrasted with the geometric, gravelly French park, early on became a symbol in German not for liberalism as such, but at least for thinking vaguely about liberalism (and for being anti-French).
The interior is about two-thirds Enlightenment magic and about a third everything that's freaky about Germany.
As with other German princely families, such as the amazingly wealthy Thurn und Taxis family in Regensburg (I am not visiting any more museums with displays of mouldering old coaches and sleighs ever again)...* 
I just adored this book.  I had so much fun with it!  It might well make my Top Ten of 2017, but I still have two more Winder books to go: one about the Habsburgs (which seems certain to be even more 'wayward' than this) and one about, of all things, James Bond and the post-WWII British culture that loved him.  Who could resist?



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*This tickled me because I too have seen an awful lot of Thurn und Taxis stuff, and own a beer mug etched with, of course, a coach.  T&T made their fortune by having a monopoly on the mail.  And now you know why I instantly loved The Crying of Lot 49.

2 comments:

Gin Jenny said...

Hahahaha, Bill Bryson DOES gripe, doesn't he? This sounds really charming -- it's been on my TBR list for years and I keep forgetting to pick it up or forgetting to read it before it falls due at the library. It actually sounds perfect for a long plane flight, don't you think? Long enough to last but not so dense that I get bored?

Jean said...

I should think you could fly to New Zealand with this book! BUT there's the problem where you have to stop and look everything up, and I at least could not take all that concentrated Germanity in one solid dose. I have the attention span of a hamster, though, and need 3 books on any given airplane trip. So others with more powers of concentration could probably do better. Certainly it wanders around enough to give a lot of variety!