What I'm Reading

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to read a book about the Congress of Vienna, but the only one that I’ve ever found is Guglielmo Ferrero’s Talleyrand au Congrès de Vienne (1940), which, notwithstanding its considerable virtues, is not an introductory text. (I’ve just had a peek, and seen quite clearly why I haven’t got through it.) My delight, therefore, was extreme the other day, when, at Barnes & Noble, looking for something else, I came across Rites of Peace: the Fall of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna, by Adam Zamoyski (HarperCollins, 2007). A glance at the book suggested that it was worth buying, and that judgment has only been confirmed by the text, which is lucid, engaging, and even a bit suspenseful.

I’ve been guilty, I confess, of the vulgar error of thinking that the principal item of business before the Congress was the disposition of France. But France had been dealt with, in Paris, earlier in 1814. The big headaches at Vienna were Poland – or, as the political correctness of the day had it, the Duchy of Warsaw – and Saxony. The major headache was Tsar Alexander I, a mystical man who could reconcile liberal outlook with autocratic behavior. Alexander, wildly popular at first, is a fine example of why hereditary monarchy of the unconstitutional kind is not a good idea. In any case, I broke down and cheated, checking the index to find out what happened to Poland.

I’m about halfway through, but the Congress only began a few chapters ago. Mr Zamoyski is careful (but never fussy) about beginning at the beginning, and his narrative starts with Napoleon’s return to Paris in December 1812, the disaster of his Russian campaign behind him. The complicated maneuverings of the following year, which ended with Castlereagh’s departure from London, were all news to me. I’ve reached the fall of 1814, and, if I was wrong about the Congress’s agenda, I was well-informed about its effervescence: when asked how the debates were going, a visitor was told, “Le Congrès ne marche pas; il danse.” This lovely pun on marcher (both “to walk” and “to work”) conveys the carnival atmosphere in which the Austrian capital was saturated.

About to start: Darin Strauss’s Chang & Eng. And Clublife, by Rob Fitzgerald, a/k/a Rob the Bouncer, which is also new from HarperCollins. Perhaps you’ve seen the blog? I meant to go to the signing two weeks ago, but didn’t write down the date. The book seems even saltier than the blog, but it’s also more coherent. The blog read like random notes. Well, here’s the book. What about a movie?

As for this week’s Book Review:

¶ Family Blessings.