Simon Winder’s first book, The Man Who Saved Britain, turned his self-amused passion for James Bond into kindling for a bonanza of cultural and political insights, shrewd asides, and good jokes. The imperial decline that 007’s ultra-cool myth did so much to poultice, the arrogance and cruelties of empire itself, pop fanhood as a bastard form of patriotism vs. patriotism as the bloody-minded form of fanhood — all of his thematic nuggets looked not only brainy but unusually beguiling when offset by bright quips, infectious prejudice about Sean Connery vs. Roger Moore, delight in Bond creator Ian Fleming’s preposterous c.v., and a constant awareness that Winder’s own brand of fetishism amounted to autobiography at one remove. If you can imagine a Ricky Gervais version of Greil Marcus’s Americana-addled Mystery Train, you’ll understand why I not only read The Man Who Saved Britain in one gulp but pressed it on friends.
Winder’s unexpected follow up is the vastly more ambitious Germania: In Wayward Pursuit of the Germans and Their History, an extravagant bid to do the same idiosyncratic job on an entire country that he did on Bond. Once again, he’s going public with a private fascination. Despite having no roots there and being unable to speak or even read the language — “a tragic flaw,” he cheerily concedes, the hyperbole acting to distract us from noticing that it’s also a serious practical disadvantage — he’s been bewitched, bothered, and bewildered by Wagner’s, Heinrich Heine’s, and Frederick the Great’s old turf ever since a disastrous but hilarious family vacation first brought him up against its glum but peculiarly gemutlichkeit mysteries in his teens.
As if his self-imposed task isn’t formidable enough, his interests aren’t bounded by Germany’s current frontiers or even those that first united an assortment of minor kingdoms resembling “an explosion in a jigsaw factory” on maps into a powerful nation-state in 1871. His “Germania” means the whole troublesome, influential but seldom politically rationalized cultural and ethnographic swath at Europe’s center. Hence the considerable time we spend not only in Austria but in present-day bits of France, Poland, and so on.
You probably won’t be surprised to hear that Winder has bitten off more than he can chew. But one reason the miscalculation isn’t obvious right away is that few writers can prattle on this entertainingly with their mouths full. If he’s essentially a tourist — despite dozens of visits, he’s never lived there — he’s a madly informed and indefatigable one, with hobbyhorses ranging from music and architecture to religious as well as political history (though the Reformation alone makes those two hard to disentangle). Tickled by a notion of Germany as “Britain’s weird twin,” he’s as delighted to spot a 1940s board game called “Bomb England” among the playthings in an exhibit of “toys of yesteryear” as he is to notice the strangely parallel destinies of “Karl and Albrecht” — as in Karl Marx and Queen Victoria’s consort Prince Albert, born a year apart and two 19th-century Germans who, in different ways, made good in London.
He’s also got enough show biz guile to keep his readers diverted with unlikely segues. Early on, he puts on his scholar’s hat to provide a skillful analysis of Tacitus’s original Germania — written in the first century A.D., but rediscovered during the Renaissance to “disastrous” effect, since the Roman historian’s largely imaginary descriptions of proto-German tribes of “pure blood” launched a primitivist myth their nationalist descendants seized on. Before we know it, Winder has moved on to relishing the same myth’s contrapuntal reflection in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator: “Setting aside too obsessive a sense of realism, Gladiator helpfully allows us to understand Russell Crowe’s Roman general by having him speak English rather than Latin, while the poor Germans are doomed to gargle away crazily before their certain defeat.” When he’s on his game, his gift for phrasing — not only “gargle away crazily,” but his earlier description of the Danube’s “sedately implacable” current — could charm the helmet off a Valkyrie.
Though the device eventually turns oppressive, the ingenuity of the book’s structure is to give us windows on the larger arc of German history — and its culture’s recurring patterns, too — in strictly local form. We’re led from Charlemagne’s ninth-century basilica in Aachen to Hitler’s 1923 Munich beer-hall putsch via Winder’s enthusiasm for hopping a train to the provincial burg or forgotten castle whose attractions best evoke not only the period he’s pondering but its refurbishing or repurposing in collective memory. Two nice examples in very different keys are Luther’s hoked-up birthplace in Eisleben — “one of those richly enjoyable fake heritage disasters that strew the German landscape,” complete with crib and tape-recorded lullabye — and the very unhokey-sounding Magdeburg Cenotaph, an Ernst Barlach-designed pacifist World War I memorial featuring “mournful, frightened or dead troops clinging to a cross.” No wonder the Nazis had it dismantled before their downfall brought it back into view.
A helpless fan of small-town museums, bad civic paintings, and similar oddities, Winder can’t stop sharing his finds with us. These include some real marvels, like the dingily preserved horse of Sweden’s King Gustavus Adolphus on display in Ingolstadt almost 400 years after it was shot out from under him at the battle of Lutzen. Just as characteristically, Winder’s evocation of the Thirty Years’ War — during which Gustavus’s invasion of Germany saved the Protestant side from disaster — appealingly blends historical knowledge and imaginative empathy for the traumatized lives people led in the war’s “terrible theater of helplessness.” He isn’t all laughs and curios by any means.
At some point, though, this overstuffed book starts to collapse under the weight of too many conflicting agendas. Read any chapter of Germania at random, and you’ll think Winder has written a one-of-a-kind masterpiece. But ploughing through its 454 pages from start to finish will leave you relieved it’s one of a kind. His serious concerns and genuine ardor end up jarring more and more intrusively with his compulsion to remind us that he’s just a lovable eccentric in the grip of an unlikely addiction. In this mode, he comes across like a hyperactive child who can’t see why his birthday shouldn’t continue for another day, only to go sulk in the margins when he’s reminded that the next day is the anniversary of Kristallnacht.
We spend far too much time puttering around in the former domains of petty princelings just because their careers or legacies are so “daft” and “fun” — two of the most overworked words in Winder’s vocabulary, betraying more anxiety than he may realize about the project’s attractiveness. The useful point he wants to make — that numberless pockets of Germany, often in poignantly thwarted form, refute the prevailing cliches — is undermined by too many what-a-good-time-I’m-having interjections, including the ineffably inept, “These places are like potato crisps in that there seems to be no upper limit to how many it is enjoyable to consume.” That kind of thing might do for patter on a jovial Discovery Channel doc, but it’s awfully grating in print.
His garrulity grows claustrophobic not least because the only live human being in Winder’s cabinet-of-wonders “Germania” appears to be Winder. With a few trivial exceptions, he never interacts with any native — and since most educated Europeans speak English, his inability to master foreign languages is no excuse. On top of that, our author’s day job in publishing not only makes him an habitue of the Frankfurt Book Fair but gives him a raft of potential contacts. Presumably, it would have been a breeze for him to arrange all sorts of daft or fun chats with German historians, journalists, museum curators, and the like.
Instead, we might as well be in a Twilight Zone episode where everyone but the narrator has gone mute. Especially given Central Europe’s history under literal autocrats, it’s hard not to wince when Winder — annoyed by the motley human clutter outside St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna — fantasizes about “seeing troops in really beautiful uniforms . . . using canister shot to clear a path through the tour groups and farting breakdancers.” Clearly, he wants this theme park to himself.
What he doesn’t want is for its relatively recent nightmare aspect to bulk too large in our minds. Naturally, Winder can’t omit Germany’s 20th-century horrors outright. When mementoes of them crop up on his travels, he makes all the right rhetorical noises about the monstrosity of Hitler’s reign. But his main attempt to deal with German anti-Semitism head-on — awkwardly tucked into a chapter well predating Nazism’s rise — is a disaster, dotted with baffling observations on the order of “To say we deal with the Nazis too earnestly might sound frivolous, but I think it is true” and “Jews, after all, were used to being Jews.” Worst of all are his reflections on seeing the relics of a destroyed synagogue: “I am staring at something I do not understand except in an arid, unengaged way and the people who might explain it to me are long gone.” Maybe we should give him props for honesty. But considering how often and lustily he’s thrown himself into imagining the mindset of everyone from Hanseatic League burghers to Saxon grenadiers, that “arid, unengaged” is a stunner.
He also ends Germania with Hitler’s assumption of power in 1933, a cut-off point so confounding that even Winder’s considerable powers of glibness have to strain to rationalize it. For one thing, the abridged timeline encourages an opinion of German history and culture whose reductiveness he’s been at pains to refute: the pulp view that everything from Tacitus on was just a tendentious curtain-raiser, with the Third Reich as the inevitable climax. For another, it omits the compelling story of West if not East Germany’s mostly admirable, impressively successful — and until 1989, interestingly bifurcated — attempt to make something else of itself in the 65 years since the Führer’s death, not to mention Austria’s rather more furtive shell game.
My not unsympathetic guess is that Winder was trapped by his own boisterous game plan. Since he’s a decent human being, he plainly knows it won’t do to hie himself off to Dachau, Buchenwald, or even Hitler’s old “Wolf’s Lair” HQ in East Prussia with mad-tourist cries of “Yoicks!,” droll evaluations of the nearest hotel’s lumpy cuisine, and daft, fun facts about whoever invented electrified barbed wire. But rather than forcing him to so revealingly wrap things up early, shouldn’t that have led him to reconsider his method instead? We’ve been watching him juggle passionate interest and frothy capering from the start, but when he reaches the juncture where they’re irreconciliable, he just collects his dropped balls and goes home.
If that sounds grumpy, I hope you’ll understand my disappointment is genuine. Thanks not only to my admiration for Winder’s previous book but a childhood connection to his subject that I can’t do much about — it wasn’t my idea to be born there, but the U.S. State Department moved my parents around in mysterious ways — I was looking forward to Germania perhaps more eagerly than most. If the effervescent gambits that worked so well in The Man Who Saved Britain end up backfiring on Winder here, maybe he should have remembered going in that James Bond is myth, not reality. Even though its own natives have ignored the distinction to nightmarish effect at times, Germany is another story.