Theodore Zeldin, 13 June 1991
‘Are you a satisfied man?’
Theodore Zeldin author of France 1848-1945 in the Oxford History of Modern Europe, is a Fellow of St Antony’s College, Oxford.
‘Are you a satisfied man?’
Why does every home not have a whole wall of encyclopedias, now that we supposedly live in the Information Age? Why have they failed to establish themselves as indispensable items of furniture, against the competition of electronic gadgetry? Because they are contenting themselves with just giving information, instead of sharpening it, so that it points somewhere. Only if they represent an attitude to the world, which people will want to talk about, only if they make a difference to the way life is experienced, can they rival the television set.
Shortly before his death, I talked to Braudel about the motives that lay behind his final book, The Identity of France. He had made his reputation as a universal historian, with a global curiosity. Why should he seek to crown his achievement in such a parochial fashion, proclaiming that it was France, after all, that he really loved?
Many years ago, in the course of the oral examination of my doctoral degree, a criticism was made of my thesis. ‘You have not mentioned the Programme of Nancy,’ said the illustrious professor. I replied: ‘What is the Programme of Nancy?’ Embarrassed, he confessed he did not know. He turned to the other examiner, who also did not know. Were they frauds?
I have just published a work of fiction, Happiness. I did not plan this voyage of the imagination in my spare time, as a jaunt to distract me from more serious labours. It is the culmination of all I have done and written. I could not go on accumulating learning for ever: I would never have enough. So I have spent most of the years since my last book thinking: I withdrew into long periods of silence. But my purpose was not to withdraw from the world. On the contrary, I wanted to consider it afresh, from a new point of view.
Modern imaginative literature has two favourite themes: love and crime. Most people accept that love is a mystery full of twists and surprises that are not predictable by science or reason. It is natural that its infinite variations should be probed most interestingly by novelists rather than by experts and statisticians: no one has dared set up a Chair of Amorology. But what can untrained amateurs say that is new about crime, which has whole armies of lawyers, policemen, professors and politicians who claim to know all the answers? Is the literary concern with crime simply a game, indulging the pleasures to be obtained from hide-and-seek and from solving puzzles? Is it likely that as criminology becomes more and more scientific, the novelist will have to withdraw?
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