Scenes from a Century
A Thread of Years
by John Lukacs
"I was advised to write an introduction to this book." Thus the first sentence of A Thread of Years . While not quite as arresting as the opening words of Francis Toye's life of Rossini ("To the best of my belief there is no demand whatever for a life of Rossini in English"), they give notice that this is an odd book. It is, in fact, a modest experiment in literary form.
The years of the title are 1901 to 1969, each with a chapter to itself. All the chapters have the same format: first a brief sketch — Lukacs says "vignette" — of some moment in that year as seen by fictional persons, then an argument between the author and a friend about the significance of that sketch. This friend seems to be as imaginary as the lay figures in the vignettes; seems, in fact, to be Lukacs's "little man" — that invisible companion who accompanies many of us through infancy and whom some of us never quite shake off.
There is no narrative thread connecting the vignettes. The author explicitly denies that they fall into any of the traditional categories of fiction. The book, he tells us, "does not have a story. But it has a theme. That theme is the decline of a particular civilization …"
Lukacs believes we are going to the dogs. Or perhaps not all of us: "You have been writing about the decline not of the West but of the Anglo-American upper class," contends his homunculus near the book's end. Well, yes. The people who populate these vignettes are unrelievedly bourgeois: clubmen, academics, priests, genteel bohemians. Lukacs himself is a product of the old Central European bourgeoisie, that great nursery of intellectuals, destroyed forever by Hitler and Stalin.
He is also Hungarian, and brings to his declinist thesis all the melancholy charm of that race, whom he himself describes as "congenital pessimists." (Statistics bear him out: Hungary has the highest suicide rate, and the lowest birth rate, of all civilized nations.) I think what we have here is a case of the Sympathetic Fallacy.
Not that A Thread of Years is all gloom and doom. Lukacs has an exceptionally well-furnished mind and is old enough not to give a flying fandangle whether or not anybody likes his opinions. Those opinions are numerous and varied enough to guarantee that any reader will at some point be nodding with agreement (yes, Burmese Days is a much better book than A Passage to India), chuckling with pleasure ("abstract expressionism, whatever that is"), or bristling with indignation ("Don Carlos" is certainly a long opera, but boring? — step outside and say that, pal). At his best, Lukacs delivers the stimulating fizz of a late-night bull session in the college dorm — in the days, that is, before such gatherings were given over to talk about mutual funds.
His elegy for the 19th-century bourgeoisie nonetheless left me dry-eyed. Now I am not a person who uses "bourgeois" as a term of obloquy and I agree with Lukacs that the current fad for teaching history from the point of view of The Excluded has gone ludicrously too far, as fads will. Still, The Excluded were legion; they were excluded; and they are now much less so. That is an advance for the human race, against which the Western bourgeoisie's Loss of influence and affluence must be weighed. For the great mass of humanity, life has improved immeasurably in our century, and this improvement has been accomplished largely by the very civilization whose decline Lukacs believes he has chronicled. If the price for this miracle has been a certain coarsening of manners, a rise in the noise level of our culture, then we are getting our miracles mighty cheap. Round about 1924 (the chapter heading, I mean), I found myself thinking of my grandfather Jack Knowles, a Staffordshire collier, who spent that year and many another toiling underground in filth and danger for starvation wages. He is not in this book.
Lukacs thinks Anglo-Saxon (he says "Anglo-Saxon-Celtic") civilization has lost its nerve and is passing from the scene. The only course of action for sane people, he says, is to retire to our gardens, cultivate asparagus, and write wistful vignettes, like gentleman scholars of Imperial China at the wrong end of a dynasty.
Asparagus, schmasparagus. Half a millennium ago the third Duke of Norfolk nursed similar misgivings about the eclipse of the old feudal order and the rising "New Men" of Tudor England. But look: Anglo-Saxon civilization is still here, having weathered not only the Tudor attempt to bring it under an Italianate princely despotism but also the Stuarts' dream of a French-style Divine Right monarchy, Victorian delusions about building a New Rome and, in our own time, the suicidal fantasies of a self-loathing intelligentsia. It will survive worse yet, for it has powers of resilience and self-correction such as the world has never before seen. In the coming century, as the material differences between nations level out, the colossal superiority of Anglo-American civilization will become ever plainer. We are not in decline, Mr Lukacs; we are only resting.