Saturday, November 08, 2008

Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie

The pile of books on my desk has finally reached a height that is threatening my view of my monitor, a desperate state indeed. This means I need to make some comments and get them safely off into a shelf of books I've actually finished. However, this state is a good sign, not a bad one. It means I have been reading a lot. When I read very slowly, the odds of time to slip in a review grows higher with every day. When I'm reading a lot, it's the pile of to be reviewed that grows while the backlog of to be read shrinks a bit (though not much since I keep adding to it.

Anyway, I think I'll write about the book on the top, simply because it is there, in closest view. This is not to say that this book doesn't deserve a review though.

There are few books that I read before college that linger in my memory, and often when I've reread those, I've ended up learning more about myself at that point in my life than about an excellent novel. The one exception I knew of was Pride and Prejudice. And now I add another to that list, one that isn't even a novel.

Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie is an interesting book for me. I read it as part of a summer reading list along with James Michener's The Source, and fell in love with the book. It influenced my understanding of European history more than any other text, and as I discovered while rereading it, is most likely responsible for some of my oddest traits, like the way I taught my boys to respond to a whistle as a more effective/less intrusive way of getting their attention in public. (Not the police whistle type call, but a melodic one.)

So, imagine my surprise when I started in to this influential novel only to discover it's not a novel at all. This is a biographical account complete with scholarly asides, quotes from papers and diaries, and even quotes from later-day interviews of those present in these momentous times. I remembered the story it told, the loving detail of how these people lived and what were their struggles. I knew it was "based" in real history, but believed it to be a fictionalized account simply because of the strength of that story.

Kudos to Robert K. Massie. This isn't a narrative retelling. This isn't a fictionalized account. It's a scholarly text complete with speculations, primary sources, time jumps, and everything else one would expect in trying to piece together one of the greater tragedies of the European world. This book is a strong education in the political, societal, and religious influences of the time; in the interaction between the remaining monarchies and those countries struggling with new political structures; in the push and pull of a ruling class that were pretty much all related by blood; and the deadly impact of that little known disease, hemophilia.

I can't say enough about this book. Really, I can't. If all history were written/taught in this manner, more would thrill to the moment history turned up on their schedules. This book has the same appeal as the narrative retellings offered by the History Channel in an effort to educate a public trained to think of history as dull.

Nicholas and Alexandra has all the romance of a romance novel, the tragedy of a tear-jerker, the politics of a political thriller, and more. But when it comes down to the end, when you understand the path of unrelated circumstances that led to their final moments, it hurts to remember that these aren't just fascinating characters composed of ink on a page, but that these people lived, loved, ate, slept, and died just as any of us...well, except for the last part. There's a reason the myth of Anastasia (recently put to rest by DNA evidence) persisted despite all evidence to the contrary, why those few relatives of the Tsar felt compelled to meet pretenders and why young women convinced themselves they could have been one of that tragic family. Massie brings that feeling to life in a compelling historical document. The book moved me, captivated me, in my early teens, and it has no less power now.

2 comments:

Deirdre said...

I haven't re-read it, but my memory is also of a strong narrative...so now I'm looking forward to re-reading it even more!

Yay :-)

Margaret said...

Umm, considering that you gave me one copy and Jenn the other, you might find that difficult :). I did find my copy though, so I've got Jenn's ready to go back to her. Still, the library is sure to have a copy, right?