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25 April 2013

The European way of seduction – so different from the American, apparently

Richard Davenport-Hines
One of the best writers of modern history in England today is Richard Davenport-Hines. He has written all sorts of unembarrassed exposés of the British way of hypocrisy and self-advertisement. 
     His most recent book was about the sinking of the  Titanic, so his review of a book about an even greater disaster, the sinking of a Nazi cruise liner-turned-military transport off Gotenhafen in the gulf of Danzig in 1945 carries particular weight. 9,500 people drowned in the greatest maritime tragedy in history. So one should perhaps not make light of the subject. You can read Davenport-Hines's review at this link in this week’s Spectator.
     But still life goes on, and must. Davenport-Hines makes the point that the book, called Death in the Baltic, is written by an American journalist (called Cathryn Prince). The following three paragraphs are the last in Mr Davenport-Hines’s excellent, literate and informed review. The last one contains such a beautiful observation about the difference between European and American writing and thought, that I could not resist copying it for all readers of this blog:

People in the lifeboats saw the imploring eyes of people in the icy sea or heard their screams: ‘I have that always in my ears,’ said a survivor 60 years later. In describing the experiences of survivors, whom she has been adept in tracing, the journalist Cathryn Prince gives voices to ‘ordinary people who suffered during extraordinary times’ — and does so with scrupulous empathy.
     Nevertheless, Death in the Baltic is a very American book. It is based on interviews conducted across the continent from Tecumseh, Ontario, to Las Vegas. It is written with an artless simplicity that can be touching, but sometimes resembles the faux naïveté of an annoying child. The clumsy innocence is apparent from the first page, where Prince notes the paucity of news report of the sinking and asks: ‘Was it because there were no Americans aboard?’

     The book also has a page of acknowledgments sploshed with outlandish emotional effusions such as ‘Perched upon my soul, you are my laughter and my light.’ Perhaps Americans are sincere when they talk like this, but Europeans only murmur such nonsense when they are young, drunk and trying to wheedle their way into having sex with someone who is feeling tired.

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