The Big Cake

Landscape and Memory

by Simon Schama
Knopf, 652 pp., $40.00

Simon Schama
Simon Schama; drawing by David Levine

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…

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