Coursework for a French Obsession

Last week I wrote about the revolutionary foundation for my current Franco-fanaticism. This week I’m going to trace the literary path that I meandered down on my way here. Looking at the books, it becomes clear that the whole French Thing is a result of some very disparate interests converging onto one unexpected path.

Back in 2012 I was reading a lot about The American Revolution. Partly this was out of a general interest in filling out my scanty knowledge about the period, and partly it was to do research for some game ideas I had (and someday hope to get back to). Looking through my 2011 and 2012 reading lists, there’s a lot of American history. The first few massive volumes of the Oxford History of the United States, a lot of books about pre-Revolution activity in Boston, biographies of Washington, Hamilton, and Jefferson (the more I read, the less a fan of Jefferson I am). There were obvious ties to the French Revolution, especially the fates of people like Thomas Paine and Lafayette. My interest in French history was piqued, but only a little.

Then in September, 2012 I heard about a new book called The Black Count by Tom Reiss. I think, but am not sure, that I heard an interview with him on NPR. I certainly came across it somehow right as it was coming out. It’s about Gen. Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, father of The Three Musketeers author Alexandre Dumas, a black man who was a general in the French Revolution and under Napoleon in his early years. I read it because I’ve always been a fan of the novelist. It was the first history I’d ever read dealing with the Napoleonic Era, and Reiss’ book was a thrilling introduction, and I wanted to know a lot more.

At around the same time I was listening to the audiobook of Jon Ronson’s Lost At Sea: the Jon Ronson Mysteries, a collection of pieces by the quirk-interested British journalist. One of the chapters describes his visits to Stanley Kubrick’s archives, which included a huge amount of material for Kubrick’s planned Napoleon biography picture. At the time, there were rumors that Steven Spielberg might try and shoot a film based on Kubrick’s script and research. Doing a little research of my own, I found that Taschen has published the Kubrick script along with much of the archival material in one giant book.

I bought the Taschen Napoleon book more out of interest in Kubrick and this unfilmed could’ve been masterpiece. It seemed like a fascinating cultural artifact (and it is). I have long thought that biographies are an under-appreciated academic format, although in fairness that is because a lot of them aren’t very good. Films in particular have to squeeze so much into so little time that they end up cutting too many corners for my taste. But this Kubrick script was supposed to be a masterpiece of the genre, about a man who’d lived an insanely exciting and novelistic life.

But at that point most of what I knew about Napoleon came from reading The Black Count, which is not really a book about Napoleon. I needed a better base of knowledge if I was going to be able to assess how well Kubrick’s condensed biography worked. So I bought two biographies of Napoleon. One, Napoleon was by Felix Markham, who had advised Kubrick on his project. The other was Napoleon: A Biography by Frank McLynn, which is much longer than the Markham book, and a bit more salacious (he seems to default on the side of every sexual rumor about his subjects being true).

Only after reading those two books did I get into the Kubrick script. It turns out that Kubrick can’t do the impossible, and while it’s a good script and could be a good movie, it elides and condenses as much as any biopic would have to. The life of Napoleon Bonaparte just encompasses too much everything to fit into any single sitting event.

The script didn’t interest me much now, but Napoleon and the French Revolution sure did. I kept on reading books, but now I started adding in games too. I went on a spree, buying Napoleonic era wargames at a fairly ridiculous pace given the small number of people I know who would actually play them with me. Just a couple months later I had already bought Command and Colors: Napoleonics, Napoleon’s Triumph, Age of Napoleon, Field Commander: Napoleon, and The Napoleonic Wars. I still haven’t played Age of Napoleon yet, but I have played and do like all the others for various different things they do well.

By mid-2013 I was deep into it, reading whole books about specific battles, numerous surveys of the French Revolution, and biographies of various key figures. As with any good obsession, my acquisition rate outstripped my absorption rate. Books went unread (for now) straight onto the shelf. One unexpected side-effect of my new reading habit was the shift in favor of print books over ebooks. I had pretty much only been reading ebooks for four or more years. I read The Black Count, and the McLynn Napoleon bio as ebooks. But a lot of the works weren’t available in an electronic format. Plus, even though I make liberal use of highlighting on ebooks, I still find it easier to page through a print copy when I want to reference an underlined passage or read a margin note.

The joy and the danger of picking up a Napoleonics habit is that it’s a subject that has inspired passionate interest for over two hundred years. You are never going to run out of new things to read or watch or play. 2014 saw a steady stream of acquisitions, both books and games and even some little pre-painted miniatures. Very high-quality of course. I even made one of my periodic attempts to paint miniatures myself. As always, I realized that I can’t paint miniatures well enough or fast enough to make it worthwhile. There were even a few dark moments when I looked into costumes and replica uniforms, but that only lasted one or two weeks and no dollars were spent.

I also branched out in my literary choices, moving forward through the 19th Century with novels by Flaubert and Zola (I really like Zola) and histories of Napoleon III, the Franco-Prussian War, and the building of the Eiffel Tower. And of course Zola led to reading about the Dreyfus Affair. An entirely other tangent of interest sent me into the Surrealist movement for a while, reading works by and a biography of Andre Breton. That’s a story for a different post. Likewise the cooking habit, which also became very French for a while there.

All this time, my Francomania was compartmentalized in the hobby section of my life. Although I’d try to sneak some Napoleonic or French Revolution stuff into my work life, it never quite came together. Now that can change. As my game development job ended its course back in January, I’m now free to throw my full time and effort into making this obsession into a profession. I have multiple projects in the works - a game, a book, some essays, a different game, another kind of book. All shall be revealed (or discarded) when the time comes. Right now, I’m reading more books on the age of revolution and empire than ever. Pretty soon I’ll be writing my own.


What's With All This French Stuff?

What’s with the sudden French Obsession thing? That’s a questions someone,  somewhere might ask me. Well, to that imaginary person I say, “It’s not sudden! It’s just recent.” Although they do have a point. My French Thing is definitely farther along the path to obsession than previous areas of interest have gotten. Compared to my late-1990s fascination with the Civil War, my late-2000’s interest in Hacker culture or even my decades-spanning interest in H.P. Lovecraft, the French Thing is definitely more all-consuming. Looking at current trend-lines in both my schedule and my brain, it seems likely to only get more serious.

When I think back on it, that does seem kind of weird. I grew up in the United States in the latter-quarter of the last century. That means French jokes were a staple of my life. It’s not like France is any less mockable than most countries, but whereas, say, German jokes focus on their coldness or efficiency or English jokes on their stiffness and blandness, French jokes often have a tinge of disdain for cowardice and/or effeteness to them. While the former two are based in a kind of teasing respect, the latter embraces a teasing disrespect. That’s my off-the-cuff analysis anyway.

I long had some sort of low-level, back of the head disdain for Frenchiness that I attribute to a general American attitude towards France that is disdainful by default. Not every American of course, and there’s a flip side of putting certain aspects of French culture on a pedestal. French food, wine, cheese, film, philosophy, fashion, and literature are held to be sophisticated and of high quality. Of course, there’s also a strong tradition of American disdain for sophisticated things, so that kind of reinforces the whole anti-French zeitgeist I’m talking about.

I have liked French food, cheese, and wine for a long time, because those things are tasty and good. I had a nice time when I spent a few days in Southern France during my semester abroad in Rome in 1992. I thought Marseilles was fascinating, Nice was beautiful, and Monaco was weird. But the real source of my current French Obsession is not that brief foray into the Cote d'Azur twenty-three years ago. The real source is a college course I took twenty-four years ago at American University: Dynamics of Political Change.

American University, at least back in my day, always gave its courses interesting names. Instead of Biology 101, it was Great Experiments in Biology. Instead of European History 101 it was Renaissance and Revolutions. I guess there’s probably not such a thing as How Revolutions Happen 101, but that’s what Dynamics of Political Change was about. It looked at the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions as examples of the different historical factors that come together to create a successful revolution. Here revolution was defined as a complete change in the power structure and ruling institutions of a country. Under this definition, the American Revolution wasn’t a revolution, but a War of Independence, since the British government and its institutions were left intact.

It’s important to note that I was taking this class in 1991, in Washington DC. We’d just witnessed a massive wave of mostly bloodless revolutions sweep through Eastern Europe. It was incredibly exciting stuff. While I was taking the class, I bought a winter overcoat at a military surplus store that had purchased a huge lot of clothing from the now non-existent East German military. My main defense against the DC winter was an overcoat manufactured for use by officers in the East German Navy. I found it astonishing that the Warsaw Pact, the grand villain of my whole lifetime up to 1989, had just kind of dissolved in the face of it’s people rising up. Revolutions fascinated me.

I know a lot more about what happened in Eastern Europe in 1989 now than I did while I was living through it, and it’s even more fascinating now. Ever since then the way revolutions unfold (or don’t) has retained a firm hold on my imagination. I don’t really remember much about the French Revolution from that class, other than the general idea that it wouldn’t have happened if France hadn’t been in an economic crisis and its army hadn’t sided with the people instead of the King. As with 1989, I now know a lot more about the French Revolution and it’s even more fascinating to me.

My current French Obsession is in many ways the full flowering of my long-standing interest in revolutions of all kinds. It has combined with several other abiding passions into a perfect cassoulet of Francomania. I’ve been tracing the recent course of my snowballing interest and I think it makes for an interesting timeline. So I’m going to put it in a timeline! But that’s a future blog post. A post wherein I will discuss books, cookbooks, and audiobooks.



Paris Plots and Plans

Plots have I laid, inductions ambitious, to go to France this Summer and launch more new projects than seems reasonable. Here then is the general outline of my current course of endeavor:

I’ve been studying French since last September. In the scheme of studying French, that’s not very long at all, and my ability to parle en francais is just about commensurate with the time I’ve put in. I know way more than I used to and beaucoup moins than I want too. For instance, I just typed tres moins instead of beaucoup moins, but that would mean, I think, “very less” instead of “much less.” Even then I’m probably still wrong. A long road ahead.

I’ve been reading so much history. So much! A certain eight year old I know says I read too much, but she said that to me when I was telling her about the movie Gremlins, so I don’t know that she’s got the right perspective to judge my reading habits. Why all this history reading? Well, for a number of reasons, including a book idea, a game idea, a game book idea, and another couple of ideas. None of these ideas are ready for public discussion, although at least one of them has now seen months of hard effort and is coming together nicely.

I’m going to Waterloo. Before I reach Paris, I’m attending the 200th Anniversary extravaganza in and around the battlefield of Waterloo in Belgium. Guided tours, costumed re-enactments, muskets, museums, and monuments, Brussels - the whole nine yards.

I’ll be in Paris for one month, which is not enough time and yet still a lot of time to get a lot done. I’ll be there for Bastille Day, which is integral to some of my schemes. I plan to retrace the Women’s March on Versaille. I want to dine in the Palais Royal. I’m going to take all the pictures and write some of the words.

Then I’ll be back, just in time for my 25th High School Reunion. Perfect time to start new projects, right?



A Historian Talks About Assassin's Creed Unity

Just came across this video (via Kotaku), which is pretty interesting. I especially like what he says at the end about the kind of game he would have made.



Napoleonic Era Trivia of the Day: Chicken on Demand

Continuing my culling of trivial tidbits from Napoleon: A Life by Andrew Roberts, I've been on the lookout for anything to do with food. Why food? I have my reasons. I have plans. Ambitious, food and Napoleon related plans!

Napoleon himself was no foodie. He ate fast and easy and wasn't much of a drinker. He generally spent about ten minutes at the dinner table, half an hour at most if it was Sunday dinner. 

In the interest of not wasting time on something boring like food, when at one of palaces, the kitchens would have:

"Dozens of chickens were put on spits throughout the day so that one would always be ready for him."

So, we can safely assume modren-day Napoleon would love him some Boston Market.

Apparently he also drank no wine but Chambertin. I'm not sure how rare or expensive it was back then when fancy wine was a relatively new concept, but it's a red Burgundy that's not super cheap these days