Saturday, March 15, 2014

I Can't Quite Figure Out David Gilmour

David Gilmour is the author of one of my favorite short biographies (of Giuseppe di Lampadusa, author of The  Leopard) and of several other books that I've read with pleasure and profit.   Right now I'm finishing up his In Search of Italy and I can't quite figure out what to make of it.

On the surface, it looks like it might be a yawn: a 10-peaks-in-10-weeks slog through a lot of long-forgotten dates and names.  It does start a bit slowly--about the Romans he doesn't have a lot to add but then the competition is pretty stiff. It is in the Renaissance that he really hits his stride.  Yes, there are a lot of names and dates, but this is definitely not just predigested Wiki: rather, he shows an extraordinary knack for for the crisp and lethal insight about people and correspondingly about entire social movements.  He is particularly good on the late 19th Century: his is one of the most helpful brief accounts I ever saw of the Cavour/Garibaldi revolution, giving full display to its essential fraudulence and self-delusion.  Which is not to say that his tone is particularly savage: indeed his very restraint is enough to make his account all the more telling.

And here's the puzzle.  A book like this usually begins with an account of how much the author loves his subject--at one point I had the impression that Gilmour actually lived in Italy though I now think I am mistaken.  Yet it's odd to see how someone who really loves the country could tell the story with which measured detachment--neither lost in his own enthusiasm, not choked in bitterness.  What we have instead is some marvelous story telling set against a background of almost glacial reserve.

By way of a taste, here is Gilmour's account of "the partisans," famed in song and story, who fought so valiantly (as we are told) against the retreating Germans in World War II.   You can find their memory kept green "in Verona’s Piazza Brà, beside the great Roman amphitheater," in the statue of "a young fighter of the Resistance, handsome and fearless, a rifle slung over his shoulder and an inscription with the words, ‘To those who died for Liberty’."  Gilmour elaborates:
After the armistice in 1943 Italians joined the Resistance for a variety of motives. Some were anti-fascists who wanted to defeat fascism, some were patriots who wanted to expel invaders, and more were communists who aimed for both of these things and a political revolution as well. Many , however, simply drifted into it because they were on the run from German and fascist forces. Although they were unskilled in open combat, the partisans proved to be effective in guerrilla warfare: they blew up bridges and killed fascist officials, they helped liberate the cities of the north from the German occupation, they punctured the credibility of Salò and they signalled the redemption of Italy. For some twenty months they fought courageously, and about 40,000 of them were killed. Yet there were never very many of them, perhaps 9,000 at the end of 1943, some 80,000 at the end of 1944, and about 100,000 by March 1945, when victory was certain. 1 Comparable numbers had volunteered to fight for the Republic of Salò even though most of them must have known that defeat was inevitable . The Resistance was thus not the nation in arms: it was about one-third of 1 per cent of it in arms, roughly the same proportion that had volunteered to fight the Austrians in 1848.

Gilmour, David (2011-10-25). The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, Its Regions, and Their Peoples (Kindle Locations 5833-5842). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition. 

1 comment:

marcel said...

I had been unaware that David Gilmour was a respected historian in addition to being an international rock star. Polymaths like him -- another is Sean Carroll the geneticist and astrophysicist, make me feel that I have accomplished very little in my life.