Thursday, November 30, 2023

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, historian of France (1929-2013) RIP

The New York Times recently noted the death of Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, the historian of France.

Ladurie did not write Canadian history, our usual turf here, but he had influence. In the late 1990s, a friend studying in France told me the book everyone there was reading was Ladurie's Montaillou: village occitan de 1294 à 1324.  I found a copy in the French-language section of the bookstore in the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. It took me a hellacious long time to get all the way through this long book in small print and scholarly French prose. But I was rivetted throughout, and when finished I felt like the only anglo in the world who knew his book. Shortly after, I was browsing the magazine rack at a supermarket checkout and saw a review in Time magazine of the English translation .

Montaillou remains on my bookshelf and my shortlist of great history books of all time.  

At the time I was beginning to write the book that became Louisbourg Portraits. I don't compare the two (okay, maybe a little), but Montaillou certainly increased my confidence that one could write the lives of people from the past who were quite insignificant in their own times, with historical seriousness and in an entirely nonfictional voice. I needed such inspiration at the time.

Later I interviewed him (studio link, Toronto-Paris) for a CBC Radio "Ideas" series called "Four New Historians" that examined the 1980s vogue for big histories about otherwise anonymous people. Other historians I interviewed for the series included Carlo Ginzburg, Natalie Zemon Davis, Jonathan Spence, and Robert Darnton, almost all of whom are cited in the Times obit. 

I recall Ladurie talking of reading the verbatim transcripts of the Inquisition's heresy-trial interrogations of the unhappy people of Montaillou. He described how people in our situation -- interviewer and interviewee -- were used to putting our thoughts in order before answering a question. But thirteenth century peasants, or his own relatives in rural Normandy, would tend to ramble on in endless detail while getting to the point. "Of course this is very boring," he said (he spoke English well, but I remember how he said 'vairy beurre-ing'), "but for the historian it is useful!" 

We met him later when he came to Toronto (to accept an honorary degree, I think), and Timothy LeGoff of York University invited us to a party for him. He was very engaging. He was delighted to discover my wife's Irish ancestors had come to Canada in the mid-nineteenth century. "La famine de patates!" he said instantly. (It was the 1830s, actually, but still.)

The Times' obit writer is not very well informed on exactly what the Annales school of French historians aspired to do, but it's still an intriguing life. Father a Vichy cabinet minister who went over to the Resistance, mother the daughter of a viscount, himself a militant communist in his youth, and a lot of books, including an early study of climate change in history.

He disliked the abridged English translation of Montaillou. I guess you will have to grind through the original as I did. 

Ladurie Photo Credit: New York Times.


Monday, November 27, 2023

Lehman Trilogy on stage: history and who gets credit

We were in the audience last week for The Lehman Trilogy by Stefano Massini, now playing at Canadian Stage in Toronto.  It's a remarkable show: the first act seems not much more than a lecture in 19th century economic history, and yet it manages to be a theatrical powerhouse, as three actors introduce us to the origins of the Wall Street investment bank in a retail shop in Montgomery, Alabama, in the 1840s. The next two acts of the trilogy, on the 20th century descendants of the founders and then on the investors and speculators who ran the firm into the ground in 2008, may go on a little long. It is still proof of the magic of live theatre -- and a credit to the three actors who carry the whole play (and its enormous word count) through.

There's an odd historical echo in the program -- in all the programs, apparently, from the London West End where the English language version originated, to Broadway where it won Best Play a couple of years ago, and to the Toronto production. The credits page carries the following statement.

Peter Chapman is author of THE LAST OF THE IMPERIOUS RICH: LEHMAN BROTHERS 1844-2008, a leading reference on the history of the Lehman family.

Is this the playwright's generous tribute to a historian who inspired him, or maybe a carefully negotiated lawyering to appease an author demanding his contribution be acknowledged? Who knows? Chapman is a British financial journalist and the author of a number of business histories.

The Lehman Trilogy has little to say about the way the family fortune originated in slavery-dependent businesses in the antebellum South. I thought the set design of the CanStage production made that clear enough in a subtle but unavoidable way. But here's a thoughtful review of the play that argues too much has been elided.  

Thursday, November 23, 2023

This month at Canada's History: Where's the Editor?

The big news at this month's Canada's History is the news that is not there.

This issue is the first in many years that does not have Mark Reid's name topping the masthead as Editor-in-Chief and Director of Content and Communications. No successor is named. There is nothing in the magazine from the magazine about Mark Reid's departure or about plans to name another editor.

His departure leaves the magazine's readers and writers wondering about changes inside the magazine's Winnipeg headquarters and what they might mean for the magazine's future. To my knowledge Canadian media have so far not noticed a story here.

As the editor of Canada's History since 2007, Reid led its transformation from "The Beaver," drove its very successful entry into online communication, produced several successful spin-off bestsellers, upgraded design layout and use of colour, and generally made the magazine more professional and more successful than ever. During his tenure the magazine earned a substantial number of National Magazine awards and nominations (a few of them for contribution of mine, I'm happy to say).  

In the Truth and Reconciliation era, Reid also oversaw a remarkable flowering of contributions by indigenous and minority writers and a great diversification of the range of topics the magazine has taken up. 

Otherwise, inside the magazine this month there is a long article, very much spearheaded by Mark but written by me, reflecting on East-West tensions in Canada and whether historical perspectives can help us understand them.  It draws on lengthy interviews with writer Mary Janigan, economist Trevor Tombe, politician Michael Chong, and others. It's meaty fare for Canada's History, but Mark Reid and I thought it was important.

Also: Mohawk writer Kelly Boutsalis on the founding of the Haudenosaunee confederacy, journalist Christopher Guly on the purging of gays from the Canadian armed forces, and a lively words and images exploration of Canadian monsters and legends by Amir Aziz and illustrator Axana Zasorina.

Also the annual, indispensable Holiday Book and Gift Guide

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Prize Watch: the Writers' Trust Awards

Down last night to the Glenn Gould Studio to join the lit'ry community for the Writers' Trust of Canada's annual prize giving, always a lively event and one which gives honours and a total of $322,000 to deserving Canadian writers. CanLit, like CanHist: still not dead yet, I guess.

The Hilary Weston nonfiction prize ($75,000) went to Ordinary Notes by Christina Sharpe, writer and professor of Black History at York University. Ordinary Notes was recently also a finalist for the National Book Awards in the United States.

The most "historical" of the nonfiction nominees was John Vaillant's Fire Weather, noted here previously. Among winners, the most historical work would be In the Upper Country, a novel of slavery in Upper Canada and the Underground Railroad by Kai Thomas (New York Times review here).

Update, November 29: Since this posting, Fire Weather has also been picked as one of the New York Times' Ten Best Books of 2023 (five fiction, five nonfiction).

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Book Notes: Best of 2023 lists start to arrive

The Smithsonian's online magazine has released its top ten history books of 2023.  It's a heavily American list both by author and subject, with some British titles for a bit of diversity. Still some pretty substantial titles.  David Grann's very popular The Wager; Jonathan Eig's King on Martin Luther King; Mary Beard's Emperor of Rome; The World: A Family History by Sebag Montefiore; among others.

For some Canadian content, best consult Canada's History's annual Book and Gift Guide

Some notable Canadian history this year would include John Ibbitson's The Duel  (Diefenbaker v Pearson); Ken McGoogan's Searching for Franklin, Leanne Leddy's Serpent River Resistance (actually from 2022); Owen Shield's Canada in Afghanistan; Matt Burnett and Robert Engen's Through Their Eyes (a graphic novel of the First World War battle Hill 70), Charlotte Grey's Passionate Mothers, Powerful Sons (Roosevelt and Churchill's mothers), John Vaillant's Fire Weather, and Stephen Bown's Dominion (the CPR and Canada), to mention a few of the prominente.  An advantage of the Canada's History Book Guide is the attention it gives to less widely promoted regional and local histories, indigenous history, and art history  

Friday, November 17, 2023

Prize Watch: The Baillie-Gifford to John Vaillant for Fire Weather

John Vaillant's having a good year, at least internationally. His internationally bestselling book Fire Weather: The Making of a Beast, about the Fort McMurray fire of 2016 and what it says about our climate future, was a finalist for the American National Book Award in Nonfiction.

Now it has been named the winner of the British Baillie-Gifford Prize for Nonfiction.  (Vaillant is Canadian-American; the B-G prize is international).  In Britain Fire Weather is subtitled "A True Story from a Hotter World"  which may be a better one than PenguinRandom gave it in North America.

Vaillant is a previous winner of the Governor-General's Literary Award in Nonfiction for The Golden Spruce but Fire Weather was not nominated for the GGs. It is up for the Writers' Trust of Canada Hilary Weston Prize for Nonfiction, to be awarded next week.

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Aren't you glad you don't use coins anymore?

 The Canadian Mint announces it is about to roll out King Charles's head on Canadian coins next month.

Friday, November 10, 2023

Prize Watch: The GGs and the Cundill

The Governor-General's Literary Awards winners were announced the other night. For Nonfiction in English, the winner was Kyo Maclear for Unearthing, a family memoir/investigation. Maclear's earlier book, Birds Art Life, was also widely praised a few years ago.

It will be said that the winner and all the finalists are memoirs (again), and it's not impossible questions will be raised (again) about blinkers on what the Canada Council considers literary nonfiction.

Gendered Islamophobia: My Journey With a Scar(f) by Monia Mazigh )Mawenzi House Publishers);
Invisible Boy: A Memoir of Self-Discovery by Harrison Mooney (HarperCollins Canada);
Message in a Bottle: Ocean Dispatches from a Seabird Biologist by Holly Hogan (Knopf Canada);  
Unbroken by Angela Sterritt (Greystone Books);
Unearthing by Kyo Maclear (Knopf Canada).

And they are. But the list also suggest even for books on political, scientific, historical, and other large topics, literary times and trends encourage books with a substantial personal engagement by and about the author. 

Meanwhile, the Cundill Prize in History also announced its 2023 winner: Red Memory: Living Remembering and Forgetting China's Cultural Revolution by Tania Branigan.  My review of the finalists will be in the Literary Review of Canada soon, so I won't say more, except that this year's jury has interesting views on what a history book is or should be.  


Thursday, November 09, 2023

Professor Jan Grabowski on historians' responsibilities

Went last night to the Yorkminster Park lecture series here in Toronto, to hear Jan Grabowski, a University of Ottawa historian, talk about state-sponsored Holocaust distortion in Poland. He spoke via an internet link from Warsaw.

I was a little disappointed not to have him in the room with us but pleased to learn he could live and work in Warsaw. I had known that he and other scholars of Polish history had recently faced trial for causing "offense to the national dignity" in scholarly works that took note of instances of Polish complicity with the Nazi Holocaust. Details in this 2021 Masha Gessen article in New Yorker -- possibly paywalled.) 

Given the Polish laws to control historical speech, I had imagined that Professor Grabowski would not be able to live in Poland at all (even though in the end the case against him was unsuccessful). So after he spoke, I asked how safe he was to research and write and speak in Poland.

He said little about how safe or unsafe he actually was.  He spoke instead about the duty of historians to do their work and affirm the truth, no matter what the state and its supporters might do or threaten to do. I found it quite impressive. You can hear my question and his reply here near the end of the video at about 1.01.30.

In response to the second part of my question -- whether the results of the recent national elections in Poland might change the situation he described -- he did not give a lot of cause for hope. Effectively, the belief that Poles generally tried to protect Jews, and that ethnic Poles suffered more than Jews did during the Second World War, is very widely held in Poland. And defending "the national dignity," he says, has been about the only policy on which the new victorious democrats have usually voted in lockstep with the (probably) outgoing nationalists. 


Wednesday, November 08, 2023

History of me and the DCB and Edith Sheppard, part II

My biography of Edith Sheppard is up on the Dictionary of Canadian Biography website as promised.

I confirmed recently that the first contribution I made to the DCB was published in 1979 (and written some years earlier). Since I currently have two forthcoming biographies in the pipeline, neither of which is close to publication, I must be on track to attain the status of a fifty-year contributor.  Not sure what the record might be, but Robert Fraser was already on staff there when it was published, so he at least is ahead of me.

The DCB site seems to be loading slowly and there is an ominous message posted about "technical difficulties." The Toronto Public Library system has been undergoing a ransomware attack recently. Would anyone try to take thousands of dead Canadians hostage at the DBC?

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