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Home Uncategorized One Damn Thing After Another

One Damn Thing After Another

John Paul McCarthy
A History of Histories: Epics, Chronicles, Romances and Inquiries from Herodotus and Thucydides to the Twentieth Century, Penguin, 553 pp, £10.99, ISBN: 978-0140283792 In Donna Tartt’s unforgettable debut novel, The Secret History, a group of student oddballs gather like bear cubs once a week around the table of a classics tutor named Julian Morrow. Their first class together has an almost erotically charged quality as Julian, “poised like an Etruscan in a bas-relief” mesmerises his young charges with talk of Plato’s four divine madnesses, a rendition of Klemonystra’s monologue over the slashed corpse of her lover (“Thus he died …”) and the Romans’ terror when initially confronted by the first Christians ˗ in their eyes little more than a wicked cult that worshipped the memory of an executed criminal by drinking his blood. When one of the students casually refers to their weekly classes as “work”, Julian, “the magical talker”, asks incredulously: “Do you really think that what we do here is work? I should call it the most glorious kind of play.” One could just about imagine John Burrow in the role of Julian by the end of his enthralling account of history as a mode of expression and a kind of moral art since men first daubed on walls and looked no further than the next harvest. One senses here the same coup d’oeuil, the same playfulness and fierce commitment to the rhetorical dimension of historical exposition as that found in Morrow’s happy chambers. At the end of Tartt’s novel, the tutor discovers that the legato fluidity of his seminars on the “loss of self” has led his class to operatic alcoholism, drug addiction, incest and multiple murder, excesses, one hopes, avoided by Burrow’s legion of admirers at Balliol College, Oxford, where he graced the chair of European Thought between 1995 and 2001. For if deviance could be encouraged by eloquence alone, then Burrow’s Balliol would have been the most interesting spot in England. In the current work he has a tangled road to negotiate, continually beset by various dead ends, crossroads and junctions. Faced with the task of explaining how the ancient histories met with the Christian imperative before emerging slowly from the Renaissance, blinking like owls at the daylight into a historical tradition which is recognisably our own, one could be forgiven for lapsing into jargon or abstraction. Yet Burrow never neglects the human dimension, having seemingly taken to heart Dilthey’s maxim…



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