Friday, April 30, 2010

Norman Stone book review

he cold war

Feel of history
Apr 29th 2010
From The Economist print edition

The Norman Stone story

The Atlantic and Its Enemies: A History of the Cold War. By Norman Stone. Basic Books; 668 pages; $35. Allen Lane; £30. 

IMAGINE that you are invited to lunch at Oxford University. Sherry, wine and port flow like the Isis, with facts, anecdotes, bons mots and sparkling insights swirling past in a bewildering but entertaining array. The conversation continues on a punt, then on a brisk walk around the university parks, then over tea, which slips into (more) sherry, and afterwards a splendiferous “high table” dinner. Late at night you wobble through the darkened streets, still talking, feeling pleasantly at one with the world. It is great fun, but no substitute for actually studying history.

That is how reading Norman Stone’s book about the cold war feels. He has a terrific eye for detail, bringing to life everything from the ruins of Germany to Ronald Reagan’s White House with a wonderfully waspish turn of phrase: Nikita Khrushchev, unlike his colleagues, “did indeed have a human face, though pachydermic”. Sometimes it runs away with him. Boris Yeltsin is dismissed in barely a page as a “sinister clown”. He captures well the West’s weakness, as well as the seemingly powerful challenge that eastern-style socialism posed to Western freedom.

At the end of this work you will know a lot about Europe, about the cold war and about Mr Stone himself. But the book has a careless air. The prose reads as if it had been dictated rather than written, and was then sent straight to the printers. The word “besides” appears with alarming frequency as a way of linking page-long paragraphs. Colloquialisms that would be charming once become grating and lazy when you meet them page after page. Episodes that normally count as rather important, such as the Polish shipyard strikes in 1980, pass in a blur, whereas hobby-horses such as the decline of British universities get an energetic ride.

Nor is there any sign of research. When Mr Stone does not know a fact, he shrugs his shoulders. The reason why Russian immigrants poured into occupied Estonia and Latvia in the Soviet era, but not into Lithuania, is an interesting historical question which affects the present. He recounts it, adds “for whatever reason” and moves on. Teresa Toranska, a Polish author, wrote a magnificent book called “Them”, based on interviews with dinosaur communists. Mr Stone refers to her book but cannot be bothered to name it or her. Instead of footnotes, there is a section called “further reading”. For a polyglot, he is remarkably careless in his spelling of names. Diacritical signs are distributed at random. Experts and lay readers alike will feel increasingly short-changed.

Most annoying of all is the lack of a conclusion: the book ends with a garbled account of the downfall of Margaret Thatcher and the limp observation that the 1980s were by far the most interesting part of the post-war era. Mr Stone’s colossal talents and his epic subject surely deserve better.

No comments: