Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Thoughts on A Distant Mirror

Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror has worked itself into the historical nonfiction canon.  After reading it, I'm not sure it entirely deserves that distinction.

Tuchman clearly did her research (and earned her spot at the table, considering she won Pulitzer Prizes for other works), but this one's another classic example of a writer in dire need of an editor.  Her primary interest in this project was to look at the impact of the Bubonic Plague on the 14th century, but she ended up examining how one disaster after another drastically affected the citizens of Europe, primarily in France but also its rivals in England and surrounding nations.  She chooses as her central subject Enguerrand VII, the sire of Coucy, but admittedly doesn't actually feature him until the seventh chapter.  In fact, his presence amounts to regular cameos throughout the entire book.  That should tell you about how much thought she put into the actual structure of her narrative.

I read one review on Amazon that suggested she was a little detail-happy, but that kind of remark can tend to crop up, the token contrary opinion in a sea of praise for popular works.  In this case, the lone critic was right.  There was too little focus and too little emphasis on perspective.  It would be one thing if that were the intent of the book, but Tuchman clearly set out for a little more clarity.  She simply let that goal elude her.

The problem really centers, again, on Coucy.  Tuchman becomes blinded by the cracked lens of perspective.  In the absence of any comprehensive record of his life, Tuchman substitutes supposition and generalization, and forgets that she has already admitted that for most of what she writes about, accuracy is not the first intention of the chronicles she draws from.  Where she sees a relatively harmless embodiment of an otherwise hectic century, the critical eye will see a cipher, someone capable of drawing praise where most of the other subjects are unrepentant (until the deathbed) scumbags, simply because he chose to walk a more tentative path (famously turning down the role of Constable twice, as Tuchman carefully details, without questioning why), leaving the big acts to others because he was merely competent at the part of oppressor in the age of elites run wild.

So yes, it truly is a distant mirror she writes about, but her own thesis gets away from her as Tuchman gleefully writes about all the absurd excesses and atrocities that morbidly complement natural disasters and reshape the world.  In the epilogue, she skims through subsequent events in the fashion she should have chosen in the rest of the book.  There are moments of lucid brilliance, and it truly is a fascinating subject, and when there are moments worth dwelling on, it's truly worth reading.

But it could have been better.  Coucy is a subject worth studying, but not in this way.  Use this book as a primer, but not as a definitive portrait, as it should have been.

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