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The Big Cake

Landscape and Memory

by Simon Schama
Knopf, 652 pp., $40.00

In the first paragraph of this extraordinary book, Simon Schama reveals that his favorite childhood reading was Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill. Fellow-enthusiasts of this enchanting idyll will not be surprised to learn that it fired his historical imagination. Kipling’s story tells how, through the magic of Oak, Ash, and Thorn, the fairy Puck provides the two children, Dan and Una, with a series of enthralling brief encounters with Roman centurions, Norman knights, and other historical figures. Each of these reminisces about the past and then tantalizingly fades away to turn back into one of the children’s present-day neighbors, like old Hobden, the hedger, or his son, the Bee Boy, “who is not quite right in his head, though he can do anything with bees.” Punctuated by memorable verse, Kipling’s tale is a poetic celebration of the deep historical continuities of the Sussex countryside.

See you our stilly woods of oak,
And the dread ditch beside?
O that was where the Saxons broke,
On the day that Harold died.

It is not a long step from Puck of Pook’s Hill to Landscape and Memory. For both books are concerned with the residue of the past that underlies the modern world, and they each illuminate the mythic underpinnings of present-day sensibilities. Moreover, Schama is a writer whose story-telling skills, descriptive power, imagination, and verve make the comparison with Kipling by no means absurd.

Landscape and Memory is a work of history written by an academic. It seeks to uncover the memories, myths, and cultural associations with which the inhabitants of the West over the past two or three millennia have perceived and shaped the natural world around them. But it is not a conventional work of academic history. Its vast chronological and geographical range alone ensures that. What most distinguishes it is the style in which it is written. Schama’s intensely visual prose is the product of a historical imagination which is not restrained by conventional academic inhibitions about attempting to “bring the past to life,” even though the evidence is incomplete. His canvas is always crowded and there are no empty spaces. Thus, when other historians would have written, “In 1943 the Germans sent anSS unit to Fontadamo,” Schama begins, “A detachment ofSS winds its way up the mountain road west of Ancona tracing a black line in the autumn gold: crows in the corn. Clouds of chalky dust rise from the road while the exhaust from the armored cars shakes the unharvested wheat.”

Similarly, Schama is not content to record that Sir Walter Ralegh planned his Guiana expedition in Durham House, London. Rather, he tells us that,

From his lofty vantage point on the north bank, where the Thames made a snaking, southern bend, Ralegh could survey the progress of empire: the dipping oars of the queen’s state barge as it made its way from Greenwich to Sheen; bunched masts of pinnaces and carracks swaying at their berths; broad-sterned Dutch fly boats bouncing on the dock-tide; wherries taking passengers to the Southwark theaters; the whole humming business of the black river. But through the miry soup of refuse that slapped at his walls, Ralegh could see the waters of the Orinoco, as seductively nacreous as the pearl he wore on his ear.

And when Ralegh’s ill-fated expedition gets under way, so does Schama:

A week into these cursed waters and they start to mold and stink like rancid whey. Their English broadcloth glues itself to their bodies, yet it is not stout enough armor against the stiletto-thrusts of voracious mosquitoes and the industrious burrowings of chiggers beneath their grimy dermis. Though the enclosing canopy chokes out the air, there is sun enough to scorch their necks and wrists so that their skin stripes with burns as if raked by martyrs’ coals. They are too hot to tell if they have fever. But they all shake and tremble with the river-palsy, rowing blind, their lids and corneal jelly stinging with sweat. In their wretchedness, they are sustained by alternations of cursing and prayer. They piss into the river as if their waters might kill the malevolent Orinoco. And when the heat relents in the evening darkness, they evacuate their loathing and wrath in wild brawling, the oafish roaring answered antiphonally by the howling of monkeys and syncopated with the juddering flight of vampire bats.

It is his ability (and willingness) to write this sort of narrative prose—vivid, elaborate, unashamedly colorful, yet not departing from the evidence in any seriously misleading way—that makes Simon Schama the obvious modern successor to Macaulay. He appeals to a similarly wide readership, and, unlike his Victorian predecessor, he also can make use of television. The BBC recently broadcast a five-part version of Landscape and Memory, with the author as the insatiably enthusiastic, ceaselessly articulate, hand-waving narrator. Only just fifty, Schama has published no fewer than five previous books, including The Embarrassment of Riches, a deeply enjoyable study of Dutch painting and society in its golden age, and Citizens, a best-selling narrative of the French Revolution, which probably sold all the better for being profoundly unsympathetic to that event. Nearly all of them are original in conception and ambitious in scope. As Schama himself recently remarked, “My history is sort of greedy history. I mean it’s big cake history.”1

In writing such history Schama employs in his new book some rather transparent literary devices. Apparently determined to avoid the obvious at all costs, he likes to begin his chapters or subsections of chapters by abruptly plunging the reader headlong into the middle of the narrative. For some obscure reason, many of these zanily inconsequential opening sentences are about eating. Thus:

Please, try the bison,” said Tadeusz. “Really, it’s very good.”

It was Augustus T. Dowd’s big joke. On a spring morning in 1852 he had been after a wounded grizzly, meaning to finish the brute off and provide the men of the Union Water Company with fried bear for the rest of the week.

It was one of my father’s firmest beliefs that no one could know real happiness who had not, at some time, gorged on a plate of crisply fried whitebait.”

It was when his lapdog, Tory, got eaten by a wolf that Horace Walpole began to have serious reservations about Mont Cenis.

Returning to the cabin in the woods by Walden Pond, a catch of fish tied to his pole, Henry David Thoreau was seized with an overwhelming urge to eat raw woodchuck.

What these contrived openings have in common is that they force even the most reluctant reader to go a little further, if only to find out what on earth such a bizarre beginning can have to do with the author’s theme.

Much the same purpose is served by the recurring passages of highly personal autobiography, in which Schama temporarily abandons the voice of omniscient narrator for a rather more confessional tone. We learn about his childhood in Essex and, in a characteristically baroque piece of elaboration, about his riverside fantasies beside the Thames:

Broad galleys entered the river with rows of grunting oarsmen. Long boats with dragon heads at the prow and dull iron shields nailed to the side slid menacingly upstream. Galliots and caravels gently rose and fell with the estuary tides, sporting on their bowsprits beaming cherubs or turbaned corsairs with goggling eyes and dangerous whiskers. Great tea clippers, their sails billowing like sheets on our washing line, beat their way before the breeze to the London docks. In my watery daydreams the shoreline itself mysteriously dissolved its ratty pubs and rusting cranes into a somber riverbank woodland where the tops of trees emerged from an ancient, funeral fog. When I took a boat trip with my father from Gravesend to Tower Bridge, the docks at Wapping and Rotherhithe still had big cargo ships at berth rather than upmarket grillrooms and corporate headquarters. But my mind’s eye saw the generations of the wharves, bristling with masts and cranes as if in a print by Hollar, the bridges top-heavy and overhung across their whole span with rickety timber houses, alive with the great antswarm of the imperial city.

We are also told about Schama’s ancestors, Lithuanian Jews, who worked as lumbermen, floating logs down the rivers to the sawmills of Grodno. We hear about his family’s move to London and his childhood memories of Hampstead Heath. There is an account of a not-altogether-successful trip with his children to see the giant redwoods at Orr Springs, California, when the family unhappily encountered a commune of naked bathers from Haight Ashbury; and there is a description of the view from the house north of New York City where Schama now lives: “In the hours before dawn, barely a fairway away from the inevitably manicured country club, coyotes howl at the moon, setting off a frantic shrieking from the flocks of wild turkey hidden in the covers. This is Thoreau’s kind of suburb.”

Throughout the book there is a profusion of anecdote and arresting detail, dramatic, entertaining, often hilarious. Schama is a masterly narrator who spins and embroiders his yarns with unflagging zest. The book abounds in virtuoso passages, some of them reminiscent of Rabelais or Sterne—like this on the dragons of the Alps listed by a Zurich professor in 1702:

There were cat-faced dragons, and serpentine dragons, inflammable dragons and noncombustible dragons. There were fliers and slitherers; malodorous dragons and cacophonic dragons; scaled and feathered; bat-like and bird-like; crested and bald; fork-tailed and fork-tongued.

Or on the cheeses of Switzerland:

Coxe eats Swiss cheese. Ramond eats sweet, fat Unterwalden cheese; dry, aromatic Bernese Oberland cheese; a great sixty-year-old cheese at Lauterbrunnen “much like a cake of yellow wax”; even the ghastly pickled, putrid cheese of Lucerne.

What then is the story which this immensely gifted story-teller tells in so entrancing a fashion? What is the argument that runs through his very long book? These are not easy questions to answer. For it is hard to say what Landscape and Memory is not about. This is where the analogy between Schama and Macaulay breaks down, since Macaulay was nothing if not clear about his subject and his argument: that is why hostile critics have found it easy to engage with him. But Schama’s purpose, in this book at least, is a great deal more elusive.

Schama’s main contention is that “landscape is the work of the mind.” Our perception of the external natural world, he argues, is shaped by our inherited attitudes, myths, and traditions. It is, therefore, wrong to think that in the modern world the attitude to nature has been wholly exploitative, and it would be equally wrong to see nature as having a purely benign objective existence apart from human perceptions of it. On the contrary, our present-day perceptions of trees, mountains, or rivers are shaped by cultural traditions of great antiquity. “Whether we scramble the slopes or ramble the woods, our Western sensibilities carry a bulging backpack of myth and recollection.” In the gardens of modern suburbia we can see the legacy of classical ideas of Arcadia: in Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers in the Piazza Navona in Rome are memories of ancient Egyptian river gods; and when the twentieth-century sculptor Gutzon Borglum carved Mount Rushmore into the heads of four American presidents, he was following in the steps of the Macedonian architect Dinocrates, who wanted to shape Mount Athos into the likeness of Alexander the Great.

  1. 1

    Speaking on The Charlie Rose Show, April 26, 1995.

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