Tuesday, November 16, 2010

57. A Classical Education by Richard Cobb

I discovered Richard Cobb while studying history in college. Among the hundreds and hundreds of pages of text that I struggled to consume on a weekly basis (my ability to read non-fiction is relatively poor compared to my consumption rates for fiction), Richard Cobb's rich and meandering pieces on french history stood out. He wrote about places and very specific moments in history, taking a little slice and then weaving these amazing descriptions around them until he had built up a very complete sense of the place in the reader's mind, which he then associated with the greater history. He would spend pages, for instance, talking about a single sidewalk and the cobblestones in it, where they came from originally, who walked on them and how and at what times, what the storeowners whose establishments faced that sidewalk saw and so on. Eventually, he would come around to revealing the info that this street was where a certain Jacobean minister had walked just before making a certain specific political move that had ramifications for the history of the french revolution. I'm making that last example up, because I can't actually remember any of the details, but I think that provides a decent idea. He had some of the longest sentences of any historians, but they were ones you could follow and enjoy.

He was also known to be a bit of a wild man, an old boy who worked hard in the archives but was no stranger to drink or shenanigans. Our french history professor told us that before his lectures, he would be found in a nearby bar having a glass of Apple Jack brandy. His great writing and his exemplary character and old boy credentials combined to make him a favourite for me. I later discovered that he had also written some autobiographies about his public school childhood. I thought that I had already read A Classic Education, but now I am not so sure. It's the story of one of his classmates and their relationship over the years. They bonded at Shrewsbury public school in their shared antagonism towards the administration and fear of the bullies, though they also had very different approaches. The pin that the whole narrative hangs on is that his classmate murdered his mother in Dublin in what was at the time a fairly sensational news story. The jacket blurbs try to sell the book as some kind of mystery or thriller, but it really isn't. It's a study of the man and boy as Cobb knew him, their own relationship and Cobb's connection to the murder. It's a wonderful read, absorbing, enriching and funny. Cobb is refreshingly removed and un-moralistic. That kind of dry distance, in today's histrionic and morally righteous world, would be considered offensive by modern readers. Even I was a bit surprised at how unsympathetic he was to the murdered mother (though she was a pretty horrible person) and how lightly he treated the whole affair. My surprise, I suspect, is more of a function of being surrounded by a world of self-righteousness and mushy-minded sentimentalism. The treacle sticks. Cobb's approach is a reminder that I need to distance myself from indulgent emoting and cheap sympathy.

A Classical Education is a short, engaging read. I started it on the morning of a day of travel and finished it before I put out the lights that night. I laughed out loud several times. He is such an educated person that there are many references that I didn't recognize, but they are not an impediment to becoming absorbed in the eccentric, complex characters and the crazy, real stories that are their lives. Strongly recommended.


Nick Jones (Louis XIV, the Sun King) said...

I'd never come across Richard Cobb before, but from what you've written in your post -- and an Independent obit I just read -- I rather like the cut of his jib. Good stuff. By the way, with this book, it looks like you've equalled your previous books-per-year record...

OlmanFeelyus said...

Yes, it's strange. He is peculiarly absent from the web, but seemed to have been thought of very highly among historians of Modern France. I think the other autobiographical book I read of his was Still Life: A Tunbridge Wells Childhood, but any of his histories are definitely worth reading if you can walk down the non-fiction path.

And thanks for noticing my progress! I've become obsessed now with not only reading 50 books a year, but getting my average to 50, so I'm very motivated. Who knows if it will last.