Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Reef, by Edith Wharton

I've been a devout Edith Wharton fan for decades, so when a fellow book blogger recommended The Reef as Wharton's finest novel, it caught me off-balance. I thought I'd read all her best novels, and I'd never even heard of this one.  I rushed over to Gutenberg and downloaded it.

Now I wish I could remember which blogger had recommended it so passionately, because I'd like to leave a message: Are you mad?  

This is certainly not a bad novel, but it's far from Edith Wharton's best.  The prose falls a bit flat and the plot lacks intensity when compared to her major works, and I find the abrupt ending verging on bizarre.

In the New York City of  The Age of Innocence, the upper-crust's social strictures are palpably oppressive. When Countess Olenska returns to New York from abroad and causes scandal with her trivial missteps, one gets the sense that Europe had ruined her, that New Yorkers disdained Europe as a den of iniquity, or at least impropriety.

The characters in The Reef, set in London and France, are equally stifled and ultimately undone by the prevailing social mores; they're hardly flitting around like carefree Bohemians.  George Darrow meets the recently widowed Anna Leath at a dinner party. He had courted her years before, but she elected to marry another man. She now lives in her late husband's large and somewhat gloomy estate house in rural France with her mother-in-law, their small daughter, and her adult step-son, Owen Leath.  Finding her single, Darrow courts Anna once more. And once more, he struggles to navigate the mesh of mixed messages, unspoken feelings, terse telegrams and maddeningly subtle gestures and hints.

He is about to board the English Channel ferry to visit Anna when he receives a telegram from her, asking him to postpone his visit without proffering a reason.  Frustrated, as he's already taken leave from his work, he boards the ferry regardless, resolved to have a small holiday on his own in Paris. On the ferry, he meets a young woman with whom he'd been slightly acquainted in London, Sophy Viner. Miss Viner's trunk may or may not have made it onto the ferry. Whereas Anna is the picture of dignified elegance, Sophy wears her heart on her sleeve. She makes no secret of the fact that everything she owns is in the missing trunk, and she is distraught thinking that it may be left behind on the pier. Darrow gallantly offers to help her sort the matter of the trunk, and he takes her under his care in the meantime. Sophy does not come from a wealthy background, and misfortune has led her to investigate a new career in the theatres of Paris.

With her own trademark gentility of phrase, Wharton makes it clear that Darrow finds Sophy refreshing. He seems to enjoy her excitement upon seeing Paris for the first time, and he revels in the role of guide as he takes her out to dinner, the theatre, museums and galleries. He intentionally delays her meeting with a family with whom she hopes to stay.

Months later, he finally travels to Anna's estate and finds her as desirable as ever. They seem to have reached the understanding that they will marry and move to South America, where Darrow has accepted another consular post. There are only two matters that Anna feels must settle beforehand. First, she must ensure that she has a reliable governess for her small daughter, Effie. Second, her stepson, Owen, appears to be in love with someone deemed unsuitable, and his grandmother is apoplectic about it. Darrow is dumbstruck to learn that the object of Owen's affections is the current (and much cherished) governess -- Sophy Viner. Sophy is no less rattled to meet Darrow again.

Here begins the intricate quadrille between Darrow, Anna, Sophy and Owen -- all decent, well-intentioned people, very unlike the vicious characters who wreak emotional violence upon each other in The Age of Innocence. Whether Darrow and Sophy had a sexual dalliance is of course never specifically stated, but that detail is all but immaterial -- when their Paris interlude becomes common knowledge, Darrow's insistence that his interest in Sophy was (and still is) avuncular and compassionate does little to mitigate Anna's jealousy and hurt. She is too well-mannered to rant, of course, but she obsesses about the restaurants and museums they visited together and cannot reason her way out of her pain.

Far from being vindictive, Anna tries to maneuver Owen and Sophy to safe places, as well, either together or  individually. In a classic Wharton moment, Anna concerns herself with appearances, only belatedly glimpsing beneath their surface.
She noticed that the girl's unusual pallour was partly due to the slight veil of powder on her face. The discovery was distinctly disagreeable. Anna had never before noticed, on Sophy's part, any recourse to cosmetics, and, much as she wished to think herself exempt from old-fashioned prejudices, she suddenly became aware that she did not like her daughter's governess to have a powdered face. Then she reflected that the girl who sat opposite her was no longer Effie's governess, but her own future daughter-in-law; and she wondered whether Miss Viner had chosen this odd way of celebrating her independence, and whether, as Mrs. Owen Leath, she would present to the world a bedizened countenance. This idea was scarcely less distasteful than the other, and for a moment Anna continued to consider her without speaking. Then, in a flash, the truth came to her: Miss Viner had powdered her face because Miss Viner had been crying.
Although Darrow and Anna make a couple of abortive attempts to carry on, both realising that they love each other deeply, Anna cannot let go of his association with Sophy. In the what passes for an altercation in Wharton's world, Darrow finally confronts Anna with the fact that human perfection does not exist, and her insistence upon it will leave her very much alone on her pedestal.
Finally she brought out: "I don't think I understand what you've told me."
"No, you don't understand," he returned with sudden bitterness; and on his lips the charge of incomprehension seemed an offense to her.
"I don't want to -- about such things!"
He answered almost harshly: "Don't be never will..." and for an instant they faced each other like enemies.
Then the tears swelled in her throat at his reproach. "You mean I don't feel things -- I'm too hard?"
"No: you're too high...too fine...such things are too far from you."
When I see people today behaving badly in public, I think of Edith Wharton's dignified, refined characters. As I finished The Reef, I think dignity, like everything else, can be overdone. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

No More Bullshit, Please, We're All Malaysians, by Kee Thuan Chye

I recorded this book on request for the Malaysian Association for the Blind, and much like Patrick Teoh's Teohlogy, it made me laugh, but more often reduced me to tears of frustration and rage. This is a collection of essays and articles that the author has published throughout the years, all pointed squarely at the insanity and downright wickedness of Malaysian politics.

Some of the most prickly burrs under his saddle-pad:  Malaysia proudly touts itself as a democracy, but all the mass media is government-owned, so opposition candidates have no forum in which to present their platforms.  The current Prime Minister and his staff came up with the vague motto "1Malaysia", ostensibly to promote racial harmony whilst simultaneously promoting policies that deepen the wedges between the races and religions. Politicians are quick to say that to be anti-Barisan (the ruling coalition) is to be unpatriotic, as if the present government is the country.  The minority race-based members in the ruling coalition -- MCA (Chinese) and MIC (Indian) have routinely rolled over and capitulated to Big Brother UMNO, the Malay party, often leaving their constituents with no real voice. The government has politicised the educational system to suit its own purposes, and the laws prohibiting any political activity amongst university students keeps them from either learning about or participating in a genuine political dialogue.

As a non-citizen, I cannot vote, but I dearly wish every Malaysian would read this book before the general election, coming in the next few months. I truly believe that the people of this country can live together peacefully and respectfully. Kee Thuan Chye and his wife obviously hold the same opinion very deeply -- they gave both of their children three names:  one Malay, one Indian and one Chinese.  I also believe his contention that it's often politically useful to keep the races divided and distrusting of each other. I laud the author's courage in publishing this book, and I pray that some of his essays will motivate voters to express their wishes for the future of Malaysia.

The Monsters of Templeton, by Lauren Groff

This novel is above all a love ballad sung to a place. The Templeton of the book's title is based upon the author's home town of Cooperstown, New York. Horribly, this numinous little village has come to be associated with the Baseball Hall of Fame, which is an especial travesty -- the assertion that Abner Doubleday invented the sport in Cooperstown (or indeed that he invented it at all) is dubious.  Readers, however, will connect Cooperstown with one of its most illustrious sons, the novelist James Fenimore Cooper, who most assuredly wrote classics like The Deerslayer and The Last of the Mohicans.

I have very intense childhood memories of Cooperstown, so I could not approach this book with much objectivity. Had Lauren Groff merely set a soap opera in this timeless village? Here's the synopsis:
In the wake of a wildly disastrous affair with her married archaeology professor, Willie Upton arrives on the doorstep of her ancestral home in storybook Templeton, New York, looking to hide in the one place to which she swore she'd never come back. As soon as she arrives, though, a prehistoric monster surfaces in Lake Glimmerglass, changing the very fabric of the town. What's more, Willie's hippie-turned-born-again-Baptist mother, Vi, tells her a secret she's been hiding for nearly thirty years: that Willie's father wasn't the random man from a free-love commune that Vi had led her to imagine, but someone else entirely. Someone from this very town As Willie puts her archaeological skills to work digging for the truth about her lineage, she discovers that the secrets of her family run deep when dark mysteries come to light and the shocking truth about more than one monster is revealed.
So like her mother before her, Willie Upton returns to Templeton, somewhat in disgrace. Some of us grew up in small towns and consistently hated them, couldn't wait to get out into the bigger world. Willie didn't chafe at the confines of Templeton until she had left it, but ultimately she too feels the claustrophobia of village life.
And, until I visited San Francisco later, I was grateful to have been raised in my small and beautiful town. Then, when I saw that gorgeous, gilded city under the fog, I regretted Templeton and its tiny ways, its subservience to the baseball tourists that came in hordes every year, its lack of even a decent movie theatre. I regretted San Francisco's transvestites in their lovely clothes, the cafes, the furniture stores with imported Indonesian furniture; I thought I would have been a different person, a better one, had I only been raised in a larger place. Like a fish, I thought, I would have grown to fit my bowl.
As she begins to explore the mystery of her paternity, Willie goes back to one of her earliest known ancestors and the founder of Templeton, one Marmaduke Temple, a character loosely based on William Cooper, founder of Cooperstown and father of James Fenimore.  Marmaduke, like the 18th-century land developer that he was, was a bundle of contradictions:  a slave-owning Quaker who enjoyed liquor and ladies. Er, women.  His prudish house-keeper, with the delightful name of Remarkable Prettybones, does her best to maintain her high opinion of him.
To be sure, all that time I had only been slightly bothered that Master Duke went off to the pubs like a common man, not like a gentleman at all. A mushroom gentleman, they called him, a gentleman sprung up overnight from the dung... Also there was always talk of the little girlies Duke looked upon too favorably, such nasty gossip. The chargirl at the Eagle. The cobbler's daughter, Trixie. Even talk of Rosamond Phinney, the belle, though she was just a slip of a girl at the time, that merciless flirt. The only comfort is to thing that when a man was great as Himself, there would always be talk.
Willie has the good fortune to be descended from the Temples and other luminaries of the town, whose lives were documented, and whose diaries were saved for posterity.  In some cases, where the stories turned especially scandalous, letters and photographs were hidden, but Willie manages to unearth even the most unseemly history in which the "monsters" played a part.  During the great Depression, Sarah Franklin Temple learns from her father that the family is in dire straits.  He had built many of the town's landmarks -- the hospital, the gymnasium on the main street, tennis courts, and the castle-like Kingfisher Tower on a small point of land extending into the lake (all of which still stand in today's Cooperstown). Further, Prohibition is similarly afflicting the town's other great family, the Clarkes, who run a brewing company.  (The Busch family owns homes in Cooperstown, and various landmarks bear their name.)  Poor Sarah consents to marry a flashy, smooth-talking baseball commissioner who concocts the specious connection between baseball and Templeton in order to build his hall of fame there, and not long after giving birth to their first and only child, Sarah sinks into the madness which had been lurking within her, which her parents had genteelly described as "great sensitivity".

And so it goes as Willie uncovers the often unsavoury history of her family and of her village. In separate plot threads, Willie reconnects with young men of her own age who remained in Templeton, and she stays in touch with a beloved university friend now living in San Francisco and battling with lupus. The contemporary story lines felt much less gratifying than her ventures into her history. I envy Willie (and Lauren Groff) her long and well-documented family history in such an historic and magical little town. Willie returns to California at the end of the story and will complete her doctoral programme, but she has cemented her bond to Templeton and clarified it. She will always be emotionally rooted in Templeton, wherever she might live.

I'm still puzzling very fondly over "Glimmey" the Templeton cousin of the Loch Ness monster, who dies very early in the pages of the book, being towed somewhat unceremoniously to the shore of Glimmerglass Lake for inspection and removal to the excited biologists' lab.  Willie sees and touches the dead creature's flesh, and her grieving begins. Part of her has died with the lake's mythical monster which has now proven to be real and sadly mortal. Do we all grow up with the equivalent of Glimmey? Some magical, mysterious, elusive being that makes our village or town or neighbourhood sparkle? Adulthood, I suppose, means the end of the magic, the death of the monster. The lucky ones among us can find a new source of numinosity, just as Ms. Groff at the end of the book gives us a baby Glimmey, swimming about deep under the surface of the lake. (The lake is properly called Otsego Lake, on which my father used to sail his little boat, the Saucy Hound.) We need Glimmey, and we need James Fenimore Cooper and his characters -- we need the history and myths that come with whatever place we decide to call HOME.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Dawdling by the Danube, by Edward Enfield

This is a charming little travel book which I found in audio, read by the author. As Mr. Enfield is a retired radio and television presenter, he did a fine job of recording his book, sounding like precisely the sort of older, game, amiable Englishman who would elect to tour southern Germany by bicycle, which he did in 1997 at the age of 68.  As I agree wholeheartedly with the author's assertion that there is no better place from which to see a country than the saddle of a bicycle, I knew he and I would get on well.

No, no -- it's dawdling BY the Danube, not IN it!
This book was also a nostalgic trip for me.  I've never visited Germany or Poland (Mr. Enfield tacks his travelogue of Poland onto the end of his Danube account), so it's not nostalgia for the places, but for the time. In the late 1990s, he claims, Germany was an uncommon tourist destination, at least for English travelers, and this appealed to him:  "There are quite enough Englishmen at home without trying to run into them abroad."  He concedes that not everyone likes to depart the well-beaten path.  His neighbour, for example, had ventured to Turkey and reported,  "Turkey is quite unspoilt, and I won't go back again until they've spoiled it, because as it is now, it's horrible!"

This book made me nostalgic for the days when we read guide books, consulted the helpful people in various tourism boards, and visited the travel agency to buy our tickets.  What's more, we could still hope to go places that few other foreign travellers visited. Mr. Enfield asked the advice of the German Tourist Board staff, and they mapped out an itinerary for him, travelling along the 'Romantische Strasse' between Würzburg and Füssen, recommending routes, restaurants and sights and making hotel reservations for him. Already this very human mode of travel planning seems like a quaint relic now, when most people have taken to booking their own travel  using internet resources like TripAdvisor. And off the beaten track? Forget about it! You can find reviews of Antarctica lodging on TripAdvisor today.

In 1997, however, it's unlikely that Mr. Enfield carried a mobile phone with him as he cycled through Bavaria, leaving him totally free to absorb the beauties and quirks of the German countryside. Serendipity was with him when he arrived at Mad King Ludwig's Neuschwanstein castle late in the day, and the guard let him amble around inside after nearly all other tourists had left. (Ludwig wasn't entirely mad, he insists, just very eccentric and with a poor sense of budgets. His castle-building spree decimated the Bavarian Treasury.)

The section on Mr. Enfield's Polish cycling trip was  no less enjoyable. As I would expect him to do, he always bought the Berlitz tapes to learn at least some rudimentary phrases of the appropriate foreign language before he left home. Polish, however, completely thwarted him:  "It was the most difficult language with which I had ever meddled!" He grumbled that the written words often bore little resemblance to the spoken ones, and many phonemes simply eluded his pronunciation. (By contrast, he did quite well with the German umlauts.) The Poles seemed nonetheless delighted to see him, sometimes cycling alongside him and talking up a storm, seemingly indifferent to the fact that he understood none of it. He described horse-drawn carts full of potatoes, women wearing white head-scarves, and the dolour of Communist-era apartment blocks.

This is not an account of high adventure, or wildly exotic locations, but it's a tremendously pleasant bit of armchair travel.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947, by Christopher Clark

When I reflect on what I learned of European history in my secondary school education in the U.S., I can only marvel at the enormous gaps.  For starters, I came away with the sense that a) Europe is comprised of the 'old countries', much older than the United States, and b) it has existed in its present configuration for many centuries.  The fact that the nations we today know as Italy and Germany, for example, are actually younger than the U.S. came as a shock.

One day I was browsing a list of e-books, and I came across this title. It gave me pause. Prussia. What did I know of Prussia? It was a German-speaking region, but where was it, exactly? Who were its key players? Why does its history end in 1947? I had no idea whatever, and that was simply mortifying.  So I downloaded the book.

Browse the shelves in a bookshop, and you can immediately gauge the thickness of each book. You look at the title, and then you notice that the book is thicker than your thumb is long. You ask yourself, do I really want to read about 800 pages of Prussian history?  With an e-book, however, the length is not immediately evident. I was not in fact really keen on 800 pages of Prussian history, but once I started, I was unwilling to set the book aside. In certain sections, I admit, I honed my rusty art of skimming.

The limited impressions of Prussia I had collected were largely negative: overly regimented, militaristic, misogynist. Mr. Clark provided me with the basis for these stereotypes but also enlightened me about the many ways in which Prussia was a pioneer in democratic, efficient and transparent government, education, and human rights.
Being Australian himself, Clark says, he has no personal agenda to either deride or salvage the Prussian reputation, and he does treat the Kingdom even-handedly.

In its earliest days, Prussia, centered around the Electorate of Brandenburg, was an amorphous entity, a far cry from the distinct character it would assume in later centuries.
Metternich famously remarked that Italy was a "geographical expression". The same could not be said of Brandenburg. It was landlocked and without defensible natural borders of any kind. It was a purely political entity, assembled from the lands seized from pagan Slavs during the Middle Ages and settled by immigrants from France, the Netherlands, northern Italy and England, as well as the German lands.
Austria had its Habsburgs, and Prussia its Hohenzollerns. They shared a language and occasionally got on well together but were more often rivals, jockeying for influence within the larger entity, the Holy Roman Empire. The Habsburgs usually came out on top in this particular power struggle.
How did this unpromising territory become the heartland of a powerful European state? The key lies partly in the prudence and ambition of the ruling dynasty. The Hohenzollerns were a clan of south-German magnates on the make... In 1417, Frederick Hohenzollern, Burgrave of the small but wealthy territory of Nuremberg, purchased Brandenburg from its then sovereign, Emperor Sigismund, for 400,000 Hungarian gold guilders. The transaction brought prestige as well as land, for Brandenburg was one of the seven Electorates of the Holy Roman Empire, a patchwork quilt of states and statelets that extended across German Europe. In acquiring his new title, Frederick I, Elector of Brandenburg, entered a political universe that has since vanished utterly from the map of Europe. The "Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation" was essentially a survival from the medieval world of universal Christian monarchy, mixed sovereignty and corporate privilege. It was not an"empire" in the modern Anglophone sense of a system of rule imposed by one territory upon others, but a loose fabric of constitutional arrangements centred on the imperial court and encompassing over 300 sovereign territorial entities that varied widely in size and legal status.
Presiding over this variegated political landscape was the Holy Roman Emperor. His was an elective office -- each new emperor had to be chosen in concert by the Electors -- so that in theory the post could have been held by a candidate from any eligible dynasty. Yet, from the late Middle Ages until the formal abolition of the Empire in 1806 the choice virtually always fell in practice to the senior male member of the Habsburg family.
It seems that historians are unable to pinpoint a precise trigger for the Thirty Years' War. In its early stages it seems to have been mostly a conflict between Europe's Catholics and Protestants, but as it involved more and more combatants, additional grievances came into play. The devastation, especially in the Germanic countries, was horrific. Clark suggests that the horrors of this war left the Prussians feeling united against their enemies and especially driven to develop a military to defend them from such hostilities in future. 
During the Thirty Years War (1618-48) the German lands became the theatre of a European catastrophe. A confrontation between the Habsburg Emperor Ferdinand II (r. 1619-37) and Protestant forces within the Holy Roman Empire expanded to involve Denmark, Sweden, Spain, the Dutch Republic and France. Conflicts that were continental in scope played themselves out on the territories of the German states: the struggle between Spain and the breakaway Dutch Republic, a competition among the northern powers for control of the Baltic, and the traditional great-power rivalry between Bourbon France and the Habsburgs. Although there were battles, sieges and military occupations elsewhere, the bulk of the fighting took place in the German lands.
Throughout Prussia's history, as its territory both grew and shrank, the kingdom's alliances shifted often. Perhaps it most solidly aligned its interests with that of the Holy Roman Empire (if not that of Habsburg Austria specifically). 
The Hohenzollern eagle shown on the ensigns of seventeenth-century Brandenburg always wore a shield proudly adorned with the golden sceptre of the Imperial Hereditary Chamberlain, a mark of the Elector's prominent ceremonial standing within the Empire. Frederick William saw the Empire as indispensable to the future well-being of his lands. The interests of the Empire were not, of course, identical with those of the Habsburg Emperor, and the Elector was perfectly aware that it might at times be necessary to defend the institutions of the former against the latter. But the Emperor remained a fixed star in the Brandenburg firmament.
Prussia started as an ill-defined bloc of land with few if any natural resources, came through the Thirty Years' War badly scarred, and still it grew.
At the close of the seventeenth century, Brandenburg-Prussia was the largest German principality after Austria. Its long scatter of territories stretched like an uneven line of stepping-stones from the Rhineland to the eastern Baltic.

Frederick William (1713-1740) held the title of King in Prussia, indicating that the duchy of Prussia had been elevated to a kingdom within the Holy Roman Empire. (In 1772, Frederick II, better known as Frederick the Great, would bear the title King of Prussia.)  Frederick William's ideas of governance struck me as very liberal for his time; he was certainly not the raving autocrat with his ministers that he was with his son. (More on that momentarily.)  He did expect them to work diligently for the people, which Clark terms the birth of the modern bureaucracy, but which I find refreshing. Frederick William also had a charmingly low tolerance for corruption. All in all, I could vote happily for a government like his.
At the apex of the General Directory, Frederick William installed what was known as a "collegial" decision-making structure. Whenever an issue had to be resolved, all the ministers were required to come together at the main table in the relevant department. Along one side sat the ministers, facing them on the other were the privy councillors of the relevant department. At one end of the table there was a chair left empty for the king -- a pro forma observance, since the king scarcely ever attended meetings. The collegial system delivered several advantages: it brought the decision-making process out into the open and thereby prevented (in theory) the empire-building by individual ministers that had been such a prominent feature of the previous reign; it ensured that provincial and personal interests and prejudices were balanced out against each other; it maximized the relevant information available to the decision-makers; most importantly, it encouraged officials to take a holistic view.
On the other hand, the conditions of employment and the general ethos of the General Directory do sound a familiar note from a present-day perspective. The ministers were expected to convene at seven in the morning in summer and eight in winter. They were expected to remain at their desks until the day's work was accounted for. They were required to come into the office on Saturdays in order to check the week's accounts. If they spent more than a certain number of hours at work on any particular day, a warm meal was to be provided at the expense of the administration, but served in two sittings, so that half the ministers could keep working while their colleagues ate. These were the beginnings of that world of supervision, regulation and routine that is common to all modern bureaucracies... 
Service in the General Directory offered fewer opportunities for illicit self-enrichment: a system of concealed supervision and reporting that ran through every tier of the organization ensured -- in theory at least -- that irregularities were immediately notified to the king. Serious offences met with punishments ranging from dismissal to fines and restitutions, to exemplary execution at the place of work. A notorious case was that of the East Prussian War and Domains Councillor von Schlubhut, who was hanged for embezzlement before the main meeting room of the Koenigsberg Chamber.
Here too begins Prussia's significant military history, both in practical terms and in the sense of fondness for military culture.  
When Frederick William came to the throne, the Prussian army numbered 40,000 men. By 1740, when he died, it had increased in size to over 80,000, so that Brandenburg-Prussia boasted a military establishment that seemed to contemporaries quite out of proportion to its population and economic capabilities. The king justified the immense costs involved by arguing that only a well-trained and independently financed fighting force would provide him with the autonomy in international affairs that had been denied to his father and grandfather. Yet there is also a sense in which the army was an end in itself, an intuition reinforced by the fact that Frederick William remained reluctant throughout his reign to deploy his army in support of any foreign-political objective. Frederick William was powerfully attracted to the orderliness of the military; he himself regularly wore the uniform of a Prussian lieutenant or captain from the mid-1720s onward and he could conceive of nothing more pleasing to the eye than the sight of uniformed men moving in ever changing symmetries across a parade square (indeed he flattened a number of royal pleasure gardens in order to convert them for this purpose and tried where possible to work in rooms from which drilling exercises could be viewed). One of the few indulgences in wasteful ostentation he allowed himself was the creation of a regiment of exceptionally tall soldiers (affectionately known as lange Kerls or "tall lads") at Potsdam. Immense sums were squandered on the recruitment from all over Europe of these abnormally tall men, some of whom were partially disabled by their condition and thus physically unfit for real military service.
I spotted one reader review of this book which lamented the paucity of personality profiles, especially in light of the remarkable characters who peopled this history.  I agree, because describing people's quirks  not only makes them more sympathetic but also renders them more memorable. Clark does not stint, however, on the personal life (as much as we know) of Frederick William's son, who would (somewhat amazingly) grow up to become Frederick the Great. The father was a rigid disciplinarian; the son was more inclined to read poetry, play the flute and form an intense friendship with a young military officer who was his tutor. None of these proclivities pleased the Elector.
The cold war that seethed between Frederick William and his own teenage son, the future Frederick the Great, puts all these earlier conflicts in the shade. Never had the struggle between father and son been waged with such emotional and psychological intensity. The roots of the conflict can be traced in part to Frederick William's profoundly authoritarian temperament. Since he himself had always been scrupulously respectful in his dealings with his father, even when he was forced by circumstance to join the opposition party, he was completely unable to understand any form of insubordination from his heir. Coupled with this was a conceptual and emotional inability to detach his own person from the administrative achievements of his reign, so that any failure of deference appeared to place his historical accomplishment, and the very state itself, in jeopardy. It seemed to him that the work he had laboured so hard to complete must collapse if the successor did not share "his belief, his thoughts, his likes and dislikes, in short, if the successor were not his mirror-image". It became clear early in Frederick's life that he would not fulfil these exacting designs. He showed little in the way of soldierly aptitude-- he often fell from his horse and was frightened of shooting. His posture and comportment were languid, his hair messy, he slept late, enjoyed being alone and was often to be found reading novels in the rooms of his mother and sister.
The Habsburgs encouraged the father to marry off the son to one of their princesses. To avoid this fate, young Frederick ran away with his friend, the officer. They didn't get far, and to make his stance perfectly clear, Frederick William required his son to watch the officer's execution. The marriage with the Habsburg princess did go through, but the bridegroom staunchly vowed that he would never consummate the marriage. Given that the marriage remained childless, and the wife turned into an unhappy, bored neurotic, history suggests he made good on this threat. It certainly did nothing to endear the Habsburgs to Frederick, who throughout his reign sought allegiances elsewhere. 
Austria's imperial tutelage over the Brandenburg-Prussian court was thus both a political and a personal reality for Frederick. The crisis of 1730 and its aftermath amplified the prince's distrust of the Austrians and reinforced his cultural and political attachment to France, Vienna's traditional enemy in the west.
As a ruler, Frederick proved astonishingly effective (in my mind, given the trauma of his youth) and less surprisingly, very enlightened.
So visceral was Frederick's need for the company and stimulation of books that he had a mobile "field library" fitted up for use during campaigns. Writing (always in French) was also important, not just as a means of communicating his thoughts to others, but also as a psychological refuge. It was always his aspiration to combine the daring and resilience of the man of action with the critical detachment of the philosophe. His coupling of the two species, encapsulated in the youthful self-description roi philosophe, meant that neither of his roles had an absolute claim over him: he passed as a philosopher among kings and a king among philosophers. ...
The king took his flute-playing seriously. His tutor, the virtuoso flautist and composer Quantz, was paid a salary of 2,000 thalers a year, which placed him on a par with some of the most senior civil servants in the kingdom -- by contrast, Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach, a composer of infinitely greater historical significance who worked for Frederick as a keyboard player, was paid only a fraction of this sum. Frederick practised and performed on the flute incessantly, with a perfectionism verging on the obsessive. Even during campaigns, his tuneful warbling could be heard at evening across the Prussian encampments. He was also a gifted composer, though his works were competent and graceful rather than brilliant. ...
He was also unusually relaxed on questions of sexual morality. Voltaire's memoirs recall the case of a man who was sentenced to death for engaging in sexual intercourse with a she-donkey. The sentence was personally annulled by Frederick on the grounds that "in his lands one enjoyed freedom of both conscience and penis". Whether or not this story is true (and Voltaire is not always to be trusted on such matters), it conveys an authentic sense of the libertinism that prevailed in Frederick's milieu.
Frederick the Great was the first European ruler to make any effort to limit the use of torture as an interrogation tool -- another facet of his progressive liberality.
Frederick extended this ban into a blanket prohibition, on the grounds that torture was not only "cruel" (grausam) but also unreliable as a means of getting at the truth, since there was always the danger that suspects would implicate themselves in order to avoid further torture.
The death of Frederick the Great in 1768 left a vacuum that proved impossible to fill.
The Frederician system worked well with the indefatigable, far-sighted Frederick at the helm, applying his quick and capacious intellect, not to mention his courage and decisiveness, to the problems that came to his desk. But what if the king were not a genius-statesman? What if he found it difficult to resolve dilemmas? What if he were hesitant and risk-averse? What, in short, if he were an ordinary man? With a monarch like that in the driving seat, how would this system function under pressure? Frederick, we should remember, was the last of a freakish run of abnormally gifted Hohenzollern rulers. Their like would not be seen again in the history of the Hohenzollern dynasty...  "Everything has collapsed into smallness," Count Mirabeau wrote, reflecting on the death of Frederick the Great in 1786.
Rule of Prussia passed to the childless Frederick's nephew, Frederick William II, who was of quite a different character, and was in no way suited to fill his uncle's vacated throne.
The uncle had remained loyal to the values of the high enlightenment, espousing a rigorously sceptical rationalism that seemed old-fashioned by the 1780s. The nephew was a man of his era who took an interest in spiritism, clairvoyance, astrology and other pursuits that would have disgusted his predecessor. The uncle had demonstrated his personal attachment to the ideals of the Enlightenment by joining the Freemasons when he was still crown prince. The nephew, by contrast, joined the Rosicrucians, an esoteric and secretive offshoot of Freemasonry dedicated to mystical and occult pursuits. Frederick the Great had managed, through rigorous economies in all domains of state activity, to leave behind a treasury of 51 million thalers; this staggering sum was squandered by his successor in only eleven years.48 And there were important differences in management styles. Whereas the uncle had constantly controlled and monitored the central executive, imposing his will on secretaries and ministers alike, the nephew was an impulsive, uncertain figure who was easily steered by his advisers.

Meanwhile, Poland declared itself a "free and independent nation", which pleased few Europeans outside of Poland.
In 1788-91, while the Russians were bogged down in a costly war with the Ottoman Empire, King Stanislaw August and a party of Polish reformers had taken the opportunity to press ahead with changes to the political system. The new Polish constitution of 3 May 1791 created, for the first time, a hereditary monarchy and the outlines of a functioning central government. "Our country is saved,"  its authors announced."Our freedoms are assured; we are a free and independent nation; we have shaken off the bonds of slavery and misrule." Neither the Prussians nor the Russians welcomed these developments. The creation of an independent Poland ran against the grain of nearly a century of Russian foreign policy. Frederick William II officially congratulated the Poles on their new constitution, but behind the scenes there was alarm at the prospect of a Polish revival. "I foresee that sooner or later Poland will take West Prussia from us," Hertzberg told a senior Prussian diplomat. "How can we defend our state against a numerous and well-ruled nation?"
So the Russians and Prussians (and a few of their friends) helped to demolish and dismantle the newly free Poland, divvying it up between them. This is a good illustration of being careful what you ask for, however, because Prussia was not necessarily in better circumstances after the fact.
Prussia was now isolated. Over the past six years, it had allied itself with -- and then abandoned --virtually every European power. The king's known predilection for secret diplomacy and chaotic double-dealing left him a lonely and distrusted figure on the diplomatic scene. Experience would soon show that unless Prussia could count on the assistance of a great power in defending the German demarcation line, the neutrality zone was indefensible and therefore largely meaningless. An issue of longer-term significance was the disappearance of Poland from the European map. Even if we set aside the moral outrage committed against Poland by the partitioning powers, the fact remains that independent Poland had played a crucial role as a buffer and intermediary between the three eastern powers. Now that it no longer existed, Prussia shared, for the first time in its history, a long and indefensible border with Russia. From now on, the fortunes of Prussia would be inseparable from those of its vast and increasingly powerful eastern neighbour.

The success against Poland boosted Prussian confidence and was soon followed by a ghastly defeat by Napoleon's troops at Jena.
The Prussian army had not merely been defeated; it had been ruined. In the words of one officer who was at Jena: "The carefully assembled and apparently unshakeable military structure was suddenly shattered to its foundations." This was precisely the disaster that the Prussian neutrality pact of 1795 had been designed to avoid. How did it come about? Why did the Prussians abandon the relative security of the neutrality pact to wage war against a French Emperor at the height of his powers?
One survivor of this abysmal campaign was Carl von Clausewitz, who went on to write the classic book (still studied in contemporary military academies), On War.  His philosophy is far from that of mindless subordination to the military hierarchy. In fact, it sounds surprisingly humane and intelligent.
The most influential expression of this sea-change in values was Clausewitz's On War, an encompassing philosophical treatise on military conflict that remained unfinished when the author died of cholera in 1831. In Clausewitz's typology of military engagements, soldiers were not cattle to be herded across the battlefield, but men subject to the vicissitudes of mood, morale, hunger, cold, weariness and fear. An army should not be conceptualized as a machine, but as a conscious willed organism with its own collective "genius". It followed that military theory was a soft science whose variables were partly subjective. Flexibility and self-reliance, especially among junior commanders, were vital.
At the same time, Wilhelm von Humboldt (brother of explorer and naturalist Alexander) revamped the Prussian education system with a philosophy that sounds stunningly modern. Fellow Europeans at the time were amazed that Prussia, renowned as an authoritarian culture, could espouse such a liberal system for education.
For the first time, the kingdom acquired a single, standardized system of public instruction attuned to the latest trends in progressive European pedagogy. Education as such, Humboldt declared, was henceforth to be decoupled from the idea of technical or vocational training. Its purpose was not to turn cobblers' boys into cobblers, but to turn "children into people". The reformed schools were not merely to induct pupils into a specific subject matter, but to instil in them the capacity to think and learn for themselves. "The pupil is mature," he wrote, "when he has learned enough from others to be in a position to learn for himself." ...
by the 1840s, over 80 per cent of Prussian children between six and fourteen were attending primary schools, a figure unmatched anywhere in the contemporary world except for Saxony and New England. Literacy rates were correspondingly high. Prussian education was noted and admired abroad not just for its effectiveness and near-universality of access, but also for the liberal tone of its institutions. ...
American educational reformer Horace Mann visited Berlin, he was surprised to observe that school children in Prussia were taught to exercise their mental faculties for themselves by teachers whose techniques were anything but authoritarian. "Though I saw hundreds of schools and tens of thousands of pupils," Mann wrote, "I never saw one child undergoing punishment for misconduct. I never saw one child in tears from having been punished, or from fear of being punished."  Liberal visitors from Britain frequently expressed their surprise that such a "despotic" political arrangement should have produced such a progressive and open-minded educational system.

Even the Iron Cross, perhaps one of Prussia's most iconic symbols, had a very democratic award system.
Nothing better encapsulates the demotic quality of Prussian wartime mobilization than the new decorations created to honour distinguished service to the fatherland. The Iron Cross, designed and introduced on the initiative of the monarch, was the first Prussian decoration to be awarded to all ranks. "The soldier [should be] on equal terms with the general, since people will know when they see a general and a soldier with the same decoration, that the general has earned it through merit in his capacity, whereas the soldier can only have earned it within his own narrower sphere."
The progressive thinking that was enlivening the Prussian military and educational systems was, however, not making its way into the home. If they didn't invent the slogan Kinder, Küche, Kirche -- indicating that women's place should be limited to children, church and kitchen -- the 19th-century Prussians surely grew to embrace it.
The patriot philosopher Fichte had been arguing since the late 1790s that active citizenship, civic freedom and even property rights should be withheld from women, whose calling was to subject themselves utterly to the authority of their fathers and husbands. The gymnastic movement founded by Jahn in 1811 was centred on esteem for a putatively masculine form of physical prowess, as was the aggressive patriotism of the poet and nationalist publicist Ernst Moritz Arndt. In the same year, a circle of patriots gathered in Berlin to found a Christian-German Dining Society whose statutes explicitly excluded women (along with Jews and Jewish converts). Among the society's early cultural events was a lecture from Fichte on the "almost unlimited subjection of the wife to the husband". But the wars sharpened these distinctions and etched them more deeply in public awareness. The equivalence established here between masculinity, military service and active citizenship would become steadily more pronounced as the century progressed.
Heinrich Heine was also on the receiving end of increasing social repression in 19th-century Prussia. 
The first Prussians to welcome him home were of course the customs officials, who made a thorough search of his luggage. In a sequence of sparkling quatrains, Heine evokes his experience at the Prussian border:
They snuffled and burrowed through trousers and shirts
And handkerchieves -- nothing was missed;
They were looking for pen-nibs and trinkets and jewels
And for books on the contraband list. You fools!
If you think you'll find anything here
You must have been sadly misled!
The contraband that travels with me
Is stored up here, in my head!
So many books are stacked in my head -- A number beyond estimation!
My head is a twittering bird's nest of books
All liable to confiscation!  
It would be absurd to deny that these verses captured something real about the Prussian state. The oppressive, humourless and pettifogging engagement of the Prussian censorship authorities with political dissent was widely lamented by freethinkers across the kingdom.
Sadly, the heavy-handed Prussian government had now begun issuing chauvinist directives insisting that Army officers not dance the tango or any other foreign and similarly scandalous dance steps. Advances in their military training, however, continued unabated and to great effect. In 1866, Prussia made short work of its centuries' old rival, Austria, in a brief skirmish grandly called the Austro-Prussian war. 
Between 1862 and 1864, while the Austrians cut their annual expenditure on target practice, relying instead on shock tactics, the Prussians introduced an extensive regime of marksmanship: infantrymen were trained to use their weapons at all ranges, educated about how to use their sights to compensate for the arc of a bullet and required to keep a record of their success or failure in a ‘shooting log’. Here, the military command could reap the rewards of Prussia's exemplary education system. Without the kingdom's exceptionally high rates of literacy and numeracy, a regime of this kind would have been impossible. All of this implied the cession of a much greater level of autonomy and self-governance to the rank-and-file soldier than was the norm in Europe's mid-century armies. The new Prussian infantry were -- in theory at least-- professionals, not cattle to be herded in the direction of the enemy by their officers. 
On 22 July 1866, Emperor Franz Joseph capitulated to the Prussians. The Austro-Prussian war was over, just seven weeks after it had begun. The Austrian Emperor was spared any annexations, but had to agree to the dissolution of the German Confederation and the creation of a new Prussian-dominated North German Confederation to the north of the river Main. Prussia secured carte blanche to exact annexations as it pleased in the north, with the exception of the Austrians' faithful ally, the Kingdom of Saxony. Schleswig and Holstein were annexed, along with part of Hesse-Darmstadt and the entirety of Hanover, Hesse-Kassel, Nassau and the city of Frankfurt. 
Finally, at long last, in 1871 came the Federation of German States, in which Prussia was a large and dominant but not sole participant. And the federation was not an entirely comfortable arrangement -- Bavaria and the other southern Catholic areas chafed against the belligerance and Protestantism of Prussia and the north.  
With the formation of a German national state, the Prussia whose history we have traced in this book came to an end. Prussia was no longer an autonomous actor on the international stage. It had to learn to inhabit the large and ponderous body of the new Germany. The demands of German nationhood complicated the inner life of the Prussian state, amplifying its dissonances, disturbing its political equilibrium, loosening some bonds while reinforcing others, bringing at once a diffusion and a narrowing of identities.
Now Otto von Bismarck predominates, while Chancellor of the German Federation, he was first and foremost a Prussian. This is one character that I wish Mr. Chase had painted with a bit more of an artistic brush. I'd have liked a more nuanced glimpse into his character. On the other hand, maybe he was nothing more than a bullish thug. One day maybe I'll pick up a biography and dig more deeply into his personality. (I mentioned this thought to a friend, who heartily advised against it. He referred to a biography of Bismarck by Jonathan Steinberg, whose characterisation of the Chancellor, he maintains, is all one needs to know: “a self-centred, neurotic, corrupt, vindictive, treacherous, unprincipled, despotic, gluttonous ingrate, and a habitual liar to boot.”)
...rebellious behaviour triggered outbursts of vengeful fury from Bismarck."From the Russian border to the Adriatic Sea," he told a Prussian cabinet meeting in the autumn of 1871,"we are confronted with the combined propaganda of Slavs, ultramontanes and reactionaries, and it is necessary openly to defend our national interests and our language against such hostile activities." Hyperbolic to the point of paranoia, this imagined scenario of Slavic-Roman encirclement revealed the depth of Bismarck's anxieties for the new Prussian-German nation-state. Here again was that paradoxical sense of fragility and beleagueredness that had dogged the Prussian state at every phase of its aggrandizement.
In the relationship between chancellor and Emperor-king, it was generally Bismarck who had the upper hand. William I did assert himself on occasions, and he was no "shadow figure", but he could generally be pressed, bullied, blackmailed or cajoled into agreement with Bismarck on matters of importance. William I had not wanted the war against Austria and he disapproved of the chancellor's political campaign against the Catholics. When there were disagreements, Bismarck could unleash the full force of his personality, hammering his arguments home with tears, rages and threats of resignation. It was these scenes, which the Kaiser found almost intolerable, that moved him to make the famous observation: "It is hard being Emperor under Bismarck."
One final anecdote in the book gives us the early 20-century view of Prussia/Germany as a culture that is enslaved to authority and, in particular, the power of the military uniform.  A middle-aged ne'er-do-well named Voigt bought a Prussian Army uniform in a second-hand shop. Disguised thus, he ordered some enlisted soldiers to follow his orders. This motley troupe went to a municipality and demanded of the authorities there that they hand over the town's funds, which they did. Voigt was captured shortly thereafter, and the municipal funds returned, but the incident became fodder for stage comedies and jokes all over Europe.  
At one level, of course, this was a parable about the power of a Prussian uniform. Voigt himself was an unimpressive figure whose appearance bore all the marks of a life spent in poverty and confinement -- a police report based on witness accounts described the hoaxer as "thin, pale, elderly,stooped, bent sideways and bow-legged". It was, as one journalist remarked, the uniform rather than its weatherbeaten inhabitant that carried off the crime. Seen in this light, Voigt's tale evokes a social setting marked by a servile respect for military authority. This message was not lost on contemporaries: French journalists saw in it further evidence of the blind and mechanical obedience for which the Prussians were famed; The Times commented smugly that this was the kind of thing that could happen only in Germany.
So there, in a nutshell (in my version) or in a steamer trunk (in Christopher Clark's case), is the history of Prussia, a nation that started from little, achieved much, and has since ceased to exist.