Friday book thoughts, once again

Just a couple of quick reviews again…

  • Adam Zamoyski‘s The Last King of Poland is an involving read, something I’m quite glad to have seen randomly at the library and read. While the general setting — 18th century Europe, in the Enlightenment and from there into the era of revolutions — was a familiar one, I freely admit that my exact historical knowledge of Poland was and is limited, beyond a vague impression of its somewhat patchwork history, doubtless made more patchwork by having read James Michener’s Poland when I was in middle school. As a result, while a variety of names were familiar, the whole milieu and overview of the time was not.

    And the least familiar name of all was that of the titular person himself, Stanislaw Poniatowski, known in his reign as Stanislaw August. Zamoyski saves his specific thoughts on how Stanislaw has been seen by generations of Polish historians and thinkers for his concluding epilogue, but his attitude expressed in that conclusion matches that which runs through the whole book — namely, that Poland’s last king was given a raw deal by history and especially by his own people. The Stanislaw that emerges in the book is by no means a perfect person or a paragon — even allowing for all the unspoken assumptions and axioms that he would have lived by which we would have found impossible to understand — but Zamoyski’s portrayal of someone in an impossible position — the winner of an elective kingship who had no real power to start with, who did his level best to improve the status of both the crown and the realm in general with what tools he had, and who in trying to satisfy everyone ended up satisfying nobody — aims for the sympathetic and the complex, and succeeds. More than once in reading it you marvel at his sheer patience in dealing with all the clods, bigots and power-seeking fools around him, while being glad to see that he had an equally strong cohort of friends and family to rely on.

    In his epilogue Zamoyski swiftly but pitilessly undermines the dream of nationalism and unthinking patriotism which in all societies can lead to troubling biases, if obviously in this case in a Polish context. When he praises the first Polish historian of note to give Stanislaw a more level-headed appraisal, he notes that the writer “demonstrated the self-evident truth that however weak or even treacherous Stanislaw might have been, he could not have brought a vigorous nation to perdition all on his own, and that the whole of Polish society must bear responsibility for what had happened.” It is easy — far too easy — for any society to focus in on one figure when context matters just as strongly, if not more so.

  • Meanwhile, for what seems like to me my annual rereading, I’ve returned to the story of one of my all-time favorite musicians, whose ebullient zest for life, readily made audible on some of his greatest work, was sadly ended by a personal tragedy that goes beyond the usual cliches about artists and their struggles with happiness. Tom Doyle’s The Glamour Chase is the story of his fellow born-and-raised-in-Dundee Scot, Billy Mackenzie, the lead singer of and eventual sole core member in the Associates. If you’ve been tracking my feed at all you’ll notice I’m in a bit of an Associates phase, and I’ll have more to say about that in a separate post, possibly next week, so this isn’t going to be a full reflection on Mackenzie’s life and work right now.

    Instead, talking just about the book, Doyle’s biography really is one of the best of its kind, a portrait of someone who was an acquaintance but not a close friend; Doyle puts all the personal stuff up front to get it out of the way and in doing so helps give a sense of what Dundee was like for them both, as well as the nature of how writers who get to know artists do inevitably become part of the story of the artists, even if only indirectly. The combination of knowledge and distance suits Doyle to a T, and the publication of his book almost a decade back has made him the go-to guy for a quote or story on Mackenzie as needed, rightfully so.

    Doyle’s work ends up being an interesting story that actually does something which I’m beginning to realize more biographies should do — namely, not feel compelled to tell everything. Mackenzie’s emotional life is seen as being very much grounded in family and friends, where his bisexuality and what resulted is generally left mysterious. Various references occur throughout to his getting up to all sorts of things, but either nobody knows anything in specific or else Doyle and/or his interviewees decided not to share what they did know, leaving Mackenzie himself to speak most openly about it in what turned out to be one of his final interviews, and even then in careful, witty terms. To quote Doyle, “the singer’s sexual persuasions had always been an issue that he fiercely guarded and went as far as attempting to bury.” I think there’s something good in honoring that wish, and in part that’s the reason why I’ve not wanted to read the biography of Charles Schulz that came out last year — an equally private/public man, I felt he shared what he wanted to share, and that the differences in perception between himself and how others saw him is definitely of interest, but not a requirement.


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