This review was first published on Amazon May 11, 2014
In the used book-sale bin in the library of ________, (here I follow Custine's custom of blanking out proper names of towns and people, to throw off the Czar's Imperial censors) a town skirting the southern environs of the North Western City of _______, the main metropolis of Oregon, (which at the time Custine was writing was still claimed by Russia), this author found a hardbound edition of the here reviewed work, published by Doubleday, a reproduction of the original Longman edition of 1843, for only two dollars! What a find! With a foreword by Daniel Boorstin and an introduction by George Kennan, this classic is now in my meager library, and I feel like a very lucky thief .
In any event, this town library, which recently removed its copy of this author's only published novel from its shelves, (and from the library records!) obviously an act of spite by one of its employees, undoubtedly a neighbor who has taken a dislike to the author for reasons unknown (perhaps I failed to compliment her new porch furniture fulsomely enough!) – in any event – the author is revenged by getting such a book from the same library for only two dollars! The foreword and introduction alone are worth the price as they lay out the historical importance of Custin's work.
The above paragraphs are a poor attempt to mimic Custin's ornate, self-absorbed, egotistical, over-the-top style, which breathlessly falls on whatever comes to his mind and follows it like a pack of hounds chasing five different foxes. Custin repeats himself, contradicts himself, embarrasses himself, is constantly generalizing from the scantiest evidence, stays within his own set of limited interests, brushing aside things to which a better observer (like de Tocqueville, his almost exact counterpart writing about “Democracy in America” at almost the exact same time) would have devoted many pages. And yet – he produced an amazing masterpiece of historical observation, one which lays out much of what explains the history of the following century.
Custine is 'The Marquis de Custine'. He is the grandson of a famous and successful general, the son of a fatally brave man. His mother was a woman who would survive the fall from membership in the highest level of French aristocracy to public debasement and pauper-hood, suffering her husband's and father-in-law's heads falling at Robespierre's guillotine during the Terror, herself barely escaping the same fate. She lived on to raise her son and revive a salon that was the envy of Paris during Napoleon’s reign.
Custine's story, if he had never written 'Empire...' would still be important. He was a close friend of Balzac, his mother was the model for Madame de Staël most famous novel, Delphine (His mother's real name). He was Tallyrand's principal aide at The Congress of Vienna. He lost his wife and infant son in childbirth leaving him desolate. Later, after nearly being beaten to death by a group of sailors, he was denounced as 'The most notorious homosexual in Paris”. All this before he wrote his masterpiece.
The age in which he lived was especially fruitful for French writers. With Napoleon defeated, and French continental imperial ambitions closed for good, the inflamed French intellectuals sought answers. Stendal, perhaps the the greatest unknown writer of all time, wrote wonderful historical novels, and, along with Balzac, invented realism. The fall of Napoleon taught them something of perspective, (a view point Americans have never, even up to now, obtained.) France had reached for the Golden Ring and had been kicked to the curb at Waterloo. They began to think – if not France, then who? The two, embryonic, primitive powers – the United States and Russia – were grossly under-studied and two dispossessed French aristocrats set out to travel to and find out what was going on in the two undeveloped giants.
De Tocqueville we know about – Democracy in America is taught in most high school surveys of American history (at least it used to be). It is a classic study of national manners, the first (and perhaps as often happens with the first – the finest) sociology text.
Custine went East. His observations, not nearly as systematic and well sourced, are more artful and dependent on genius rather than method. The setting is Russia in the late 1830s. His observations are stunning n their perceptiveness and foreshadowing of what modern readers know will come to Russia. You can open the book at random as often as you like and you will be amazed at what he writes. There is no plot so this is a perfectly acceptable way to read it.
Custine's book is in large part the source for George Kennan's policy of post-war 'Containment'. Kennan, who worked in the American Embassy in Moscow through much of the second world war and its aftermath, saw Russia for what it was. Russia under Stalin, as horrible as that was, was not that different than the Russia under Nicholas I in the previous century. Russian Communism was not the dark, conspiratorial plot to undermine American purity of Essence, but merely Russia as Russia always was, imperialistic and paranoid. The secret police, the lack of an informed middle class, the extensive 'gulag' like prison system, the xenophobic paranoia and the overweening self regard Russian have for their own country, combined with a deep self doubt about same, all are on display in Custine's travelogue. But Custine also shows the inward attitude toward life that Russians have and their adoration of poetry and literature, and how that would lead to the greatest blooming of literary output ever known in the years that follow.
He describes seeing a man beat to death for a trifle with no more regard paid to it by the Russians he is travelling with than if an insect were swatted. Custine was horribly prejudiced and has little positive to say about Russia. He wrote “their only primitive facility is the aptitude to reproduce the inventions of foreigners.” or “In Russia the government interferes with everything and vivifies nothing .. death hovers over all heads and strikes capriciously when it pleases.” or “The Russian mother ought to weep more at the birth than at the deaths of their children.” He writes of the construction of St Petersburg by the supposedly enlightened Peter the Great and of the hundreds of thousand peasant lives that were callously sacrificed in its building.
He writes, “The Russian Government is an absolute monarchy moderated by assassination.” “Are you ignorant of what is now passing on the Volga...whole populations are being transported.” He explains why Russian writers are so inspired - “The only poets really unhappy are those condemned to languish under a system of publicity. When all the world may say what they please, the poet must hold his peace. Poetry is a mystery which servers to express more than words: it can not subsist among a people who have lost the modesty of thought. Vision, allegory apologue are the truth of poetry. In a country where publicity pervades everything, this truth is destroyed by reality, which is always course and repulsive...” Boy is that ever true.
He describes the entire country as a 'Potemkin village' – "Interesting exterior architecture devoid of internal conveniences.” He says it is an “unhappy land where every stranger appears as a savior in the eyes of the herd of oppressed beings.”
The book is a constant unending source of pithy observations and full of over the top generalizations mixed together with no observable organizing principle other than the sequence of his journey. At 600 plus pages this will begin to tire the reader. But I don't think it will deter the reader because if you have an interest in the subject you can't wait to read what is next. In pacing, it is almost like a non-stop Joan Rivers monologue, when she is at her best.
Custine knows he is all over the map. He says, “that he is fearlessly following the truth and that if the experience of the day has falsified the conclusions of the previous day, I don't fear to show it.” Of course that is life, because nothing follows a pattern forever.
As to his predictions – well here is Custine predicting the future political events
“If ever they should succeed in creating a REAL revolution among the Russian people, massacre would be performed with the regularity that marks the evolutions of a regiment. Villages would change into barracks and organized murder would stalk forth armed from the cottages, form in line, and advance in order. In short the Russians would prepare for pillage from Smolensk to Irkutsk as they march in parade in Petersburg.”
His language is rich, he does not scrimp or hide what he saw nor does he disguise what that made him feel. It is a powerful piece of literature and required reading for any foreigner who wishes to say he understands Russia. I'll let Daniel Boorstin have the last word on why this is an important book. “He somehow sensed features of Russian life and institutions that reached back for millennia before his time and would extend forward for more than a century.... we are constantly amazed that the breadth of his insight could so far exceed the scope of his observations. And we are tantalized by the thought that though some of his facts may be inaccurate, or exaggerated or maliciously distorted, still many of his conclusions survive at the distance of time.”