A history of the USA. André Maurois. Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 36s.
A history of the USSR. Louis Aragon. Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 63s.
The difference in the price of these two books reflects the difference in their lengths; the only real difference that there is between what one might have expected to be the products of two opposed traditions of historical interpretation. Maurois is urbane and anglophile—he is photographed for the dust-cover wearing a dinner-jacket—and his book is resolutely amateur, moderate, middle-brow and uncritical. He deplores the ‘out-of-date tradition’ which makes a distinction between capitalist and collectivist economies (p.327); deals with Cuba in four trite sentences; gives as examples of ‘great, essentially American’ music that of Gershwin and Bernstein; sees jazz as merely a ‘Dionysiac stimulation’. The situation of negroes in the United States Maurois dismisses in one ineffable paragraph, which ends as follows: ‘In possibly 30 or 50 years, there will be complete racial equality. It may be said that 30 or 50 years is a long time; but there are very ancient prejudices that have to be overcome. One generation has to pass away and a fresh one must rise up: meanwhile there will be a continuous progress, because that is in the nature of things.’ This is typical of this trivial book.
Aragon’s book is certainly not amateur. If one had not seen his name on the title-page, one might have ascribed its composition to the team who make up the Soviet encyclopaedia, though from time to time one does come across a tired simile. The most notable characteristic of the book is its carrying of the chronological approach to history to absurd and literally hallucinatory lengths. The sections into which the book is divided carry such titles as ‘From January 1954 to the end of December 1957’, single pages contain as many as a dozen insignificant dates. Opening the book at the section mentioned, one finds the first five paragraphs begin as follows ‘On January 1st, 1954...’,‘From January 25th to February 19th...’,‘All through February ...’,‘In March...’,‘On March 19th...’.Not history, but a date-list. One cannot recognize the rather elegant, avant-garde poet of the thirties in the graceless orthodoxy of this rubbish.
In fact Maurois and Aragon, far from contradicting each other, coincide in all important aspects of historical approach. They have both produced books which are radically unstructured, and radically non-analytical. Both have a matchless facility for euphemism, and are unswervingly consistent in their avoidance of the problematic and their eschewing of any suspicion of a critical perspective. Both are platitudinous, overwhelmingly comfortable in their interpretations and their hopes. Both conclude their books characteristically with pious invocations of peaceful coexistence. How much more instructive it would have been if Andre Maurois had been asked to write on the Soviet Union, and Louis Aragon on the United States . . . q.h.