A Thread of Years

John Lukacs, Author Yale University Press $60 (490p) ISBN 978-0-300-07188-7
The prolific Lukacs, author or editor of 18 previous books (including The Hitler of History), has written something so original in form that describing it is difficult. Starting with the year 1901 and ending with the year 1969, Lukacs presents vignettes, one per year, that could be labeled historical fiction. Although real-life people show up in the vignettes, the protagonists are characters created by Lukacs. The purpose of the loosely connected sketches is to portray the history of manners in 20th-century America and, to a lesser extent, in Europe. The theme behind the exercise is the decline of Western civilization as the ideal of the gentleman is dismissed as anachronistic. These annual scenes would be daring as is, but Lukacs takes his unusual form a step further into the experimental realm by following each with a dialogue. Participants in the dialogue are the author and an unnamed second person who challenges Lukacs's substance and style. Lukacs, a well-known maverick within the discipline of history, is self-conscious in his choice of format. As he puts it, he has chosen to move away from attributing thoughts, words and deeds to persons deemed great by historians. Instead, he has chosen to write about individuals (who are sometimes representative of types) ""whose plausibility exists only because of the historical reality about their places and times."" The book is filled with interesting contradictions, including Lukacs's claim to avant-garde status while simultaneously casting doubt on the avant-garde. Whatever readers conclude about Lukacs's experiment, one quality is undeniably refreshing--his emphasis on the history of common individuals rather than presidents, kings or the nameless masses. (Mar.)
Reviewed on: 02/16/1998
Release date: 02/01/1998
Paperback - 496 pages - 978-0-300-08075-9
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