The Tartar Steppe

It’s feast or famine at No. 56 and right now it’s feast. A feast of lovely books and I will share them with you as I read them. First I never got round to mentioning that I was given two books after I fell downstairs.

I’d like to tell you today about one of them and I think it unlikely that you will have heard of the author. You will almost certainly remember John Keegan: military historian, writer, journalist and five star good egg, even if he did support the Iraq War. One episode sticks in my mind. He was invited to travel from Somerset to the White House in 1994 to brief President Clinton on the 50th anniversary of the Normandy landings. He had lectured in history at Sandhurst so this assignment posed no problem (although he did do some revision on the American role) – until he was told at the door to the Oval Office that he had only fifteen minutes with the President. He said that his lecture had all the detail and depth of a Ladybird book. Subsequently, when reviewing a fleet of battleships in the Channel, Clinton did not do well. He pointed at an aircraft carrier and asked the British Admiral beside him what it was. “That, Mr President, is the biggest battleship in the world; it’s the USS George Washington and it’s one of yours.” Do you think President-elect Trump will have the intellectual curiosity, the intelligence or the attention-span to seek advice from a latter day John Keegan?

Sir John Keegan

After that digression, this is what John Keegan had to say about the book I am reading. “It is not often that a masterpiece falls into one’s hands. But The Tartar Steppe is undoubtedly a masterpiece, a sublime book, and Buzzati a master of the written word.” Sorry, one more digression. I was once asked to contribute a suitably enthusiastic quote for the blurb on the back of a paperback and was mightily disappointed to be given a choice of ten to choose from. I never quite trust enthusiastic endorsements after that experience.

Dino Buzzati

Marco waxed lyrical about The Tartar Steppe over the bibulous lunch that preceded my fall and it was generous of him to send me a copy when I was convalescing. A talented disciple of Stephen Potter, he told me that of course it reads much better in Italian. I am content with Stuart Hood’s translation. It is a fascinating tale, part allegory, part fable told in a dreamlike way. I am only a short way into it but already am forming theories about its meaning. Is it about warfare or is it a brilliant critique of how we waste our lives in humdrum repetitive jobs? Does it attempt to show how small a mark Mankind makes on the vast landscape of the planet? Well, I probably won’t know even after another two hundred pages.

I must confess that I although I read John Keegan’s articles in The Daily Telegraph I have not read any of his books. A good place to start would be The Face of Battle.  This is how it is described in his Telegraph obituary.

What is it like to be in a battle? Instead of adopting a commander’s perspective, seeing every conflict as an impersonal flow of causation, currents and tendencies in the way favoured by contemporary historians, Keegan concentrated on the experience of the common soldier. 

After elegantly discussing why history is usually written by victors and the limitations of survivors’ accounts, he examined three battles: Agincourt in 1415, Waterloo in 1815 and the Somme in 1916. Drawing on a wide variety of sources, including priests’ eyewitness accounts of the first, a post-conflict questionnaire sent out by an officer after the second, and the flood of letters, diaries, poetry and official reports written during the last, he described what in the past had all too often been skated over: the deep fears, the lust for killing, the willingness to risk one’s life for a comrade — characteristics common to the soldiers of all three battles. He evoked the sights, sounds and smells of war, vividly bringing home the experience for both veterans and civilian readers.

Bugatti and Keegan – two authors writing about war in completely different ways. Another day, if I remember, I will tell you about another Italian’s view of war; a Nobel prize winner no less, who I saw once in the flesh and falls into the category of chateau bottled, copper-bottomed, sea-going complete shit. Sorry, Marco, but there are plenty of Brits you can nominate.

As it’s Christmas let’s have a repeat. Did I really see ABBA at a Vitol party in a big hotel in Park Lane in the early 1980s?


2 thoughts on “The Tartar Steppe”

  1. Well, I have just finished Tartar Steppe and a more dismal book is difficult to imagine. Chap in the middle of nowhere devotes his career to waiting for them to arrive and pops his clogs the day before they do. No jokes in between. Lucky I wasn’t reading it in some dismal Hilton on the road or I might not have survived either!
    Makes Ibsen seem jolly in comparison. Well written I grant.

Comments are closed.