Book review of the month


26 March 2010, 4.36 CET

Tom Carson reviews Simon Winder’s Germania.

A highly successful review of a book “book about Germany by a writer who has never lived there, doesn’t speak [the] language, doesn’t seem to have met any Germans”, and wishes to completely ignore German history after 1933.

We spend far too much time puttering around in the former domains of petty princelings just because their careers or legacies are so “daft” and “fun” — two of the most overworked words in Winder’s vocabulary, betraying more anxiety than he may realize about the project’s attractiveness. The useful point he wants to make — that numberless pockets of Germany, often in poignantly thwarted form, refute the prevailing cliches — is undermined by too many what-a-good-time-I’m-having interjections, including the ineffably inept, “These places are like potato crisps in that there seems to be no upper limit to how many it is enjoyable to consume.” That kind of thing might do for patter on a jovial Discovery Channel doc, but it’s awfully grating in print.

His garrulity grows claustrophobic not least because the only live human being in Winder’s cabinet-of-wonders “Germania” appears to be Winder. With a few trivial exceptions, he never interacts with any native — and since most educated Europeans speak English, his inability to master foreign languages is no excuse. On top of that, our author’s day job in publishing not only makes him an habitue of the Frankfurt Book Fair but gives him a raft of potential contacts. Presumably, it would have been a breeze for him to arrange all sorts of daft or fun chats with German historians, journalists, museum curators, and the like.

Instead, we might as well be in a Twilight Zone episode where everyone but the narrator has gone mute. Especially given Central Europe’s history under literal autocrats, it’s hard not to wince when Winder — annoyed by the motley human clutter outside St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna — fantasizes about “seeing troops in really beautiful uniforms . . . using canister shot to clear a path through the tour groups and farting breakdancers.” Clearly, he wants this theme park to himself.

/via The Browser, whose characterization of Mr Winder I quoted above.