At the end of a long and productive life, the wise, curious, generous, opinionated and angelically literate art historian Ernst Gombrich decided to translate into his adopted English a book he’d published in his native Vienna some 65 years before, Eine Kurze Weltgeschichte für Junge Leser (“A Little History of the World for Young Readers”). Written to meet a pressing publication schedule, the original edition was the first book of a jobless, twentysomething Ph.D. who possessed both the requisite learning and intellectual confidence to take on the assignment. The young Gombrich built the book at the rate of a chapter a day: He’d research a chapter’s material in the morning and afternoon, and compose it in the evening.
Although A Little History of the World has been translated into 18 languages since its original 1936 publication, with a reissue by a German publisher and revisions by the author in 1985, this is the first time it’s appeared in English. As Gombrich’s granddaughter, Leonie, explains in a preface as carefully articulated as her grandfather’s text, Gombrich’s second book was his landmark and still internationally popular chronicle for adults, The Story of Art—and he went on to write many other books. But despite repeated pleas from publishers, he never brought out an English edition of his first book. “It took the events of the 1990’s, and Britain’s increasing involvement in the European Union—as well as my grandmother’s tactful encouragement—to convince him,” Leonie Gombrich writes.
Assisted by Caroline Mustill, Gombrich reworked 10 of the chapters into English before he died; and, after his death, his granddaughter commissioned Ms. Mustill to complete the translation. In the course of his own effort, Gombrich refined some passages and laid out plans to write a few new chapters relating to England (to which he and his wife fled in the 1930’s) and the United States. However, even without his illuminations of Shakespeare, the Bill of Rights and the birth of parliamentary democracy, A Little History speaks to readers of any age. Its tone of voice is immediate and humane, like the writing of Gombrich’s American contemporaries E.B. White and Edwin Denby. The prose was tested by being read aloud, and it pleasures the ear as well as the mind.
The 40 chapters—each no more than four or five pages and each ornamented with its own evocative woodcut by Clifford Harper—bear out the book’s title more faithfully than one might expect in an unashamedly personal volume of less than 300 pages. This “little” history makes no pretense to being impartial or complete or innovative in its method. The major incidents and figures were selected according to what Gombrich thought most people remembered, or would if their upbringing and education had been like his. And, since he was looking through a sensibility that had been cultivated at the university level in pre–World War II Vienna, one finds much more about Germany, for instance, than the United States, whose entry on the book’s world stage is confined to a page or two: a few sentences on the 1776 Revolution, a brief summary of our institution of slavery, the Civil War.
Ever since A Little History’s initial publication, readers have noted that Africa and Japan are accorded much less attention than China or India, that Latin America has been melted down to the atrocities committed against Montezuma by Hernándo Cortéz and his conquistadores, and that there’s barely a mention of Scandinavia or Ireland or North America. This is primarily a story of southern Europe and Britain, with an occasional long glance eastward. And many omissions: Apparently, Gombrich never considered—even in his late revisions—adding a passage to mark the founding of Israel and the modern agony suffered by the Middle East in the wake of the Balfour Declaration.
But this is a book one goes to for the imagination and resourcefulness of the storytelling, and for the way the teller takes the bird’s-eye moral measure of the individuals and groups he’s chosen to include. No two chapters follow quite the same map: One begins by plunging straight into the action, while another begins with a meditative analogy worthy of Pascal. One chapter concerns emperors and kings; the one that follows concerns the social classes and economic activity of a generalized town. Technological invention is always credited; cruelty, especially cruelty in the course of empire-building, is always remarked upon; and the book’s pacificism seems as much a child’s dream in our moment as it must have when the Nazis banned it.
A Little History is a collection of miniatures, chronologically arranged, which veer between poetry and ethics; and to be able to plunge into its wry voice, fantastical imagery and sheer reasonableness at the end of a dispiriting workday seems—to me, at least—a privilege. The respect for the reader on every page, along with certain passages profoundly reverent of innocence, are a kind of lost treasure unexpectedly restored.
It’s a book one wouldn’t hesitate to read to a child—though a final chapter, apparently written for the 1985 German edition, contains the author’s debate with himself about how much children ought to learn of cruelty, torture and mass murder, especially in the context of the Holocaust. (One is amazed to discover that even Gombrich—who emigrated to escape the Nazis—couldn’t believe the depth of the horror without extensive evidence.)
The chapters on the European Middle Ages evince particular care and joy in their making. Gombrich clearly had an affinity for that place and period; indeed, his granddaughter’s preface notes that the very first chapter he wrote the first time around was the one concerning the age of chivalry.
“What I have always loved best about the history of the world is that it is true,” Gombrich writes. “That all the extraordinary things we read were no less real than you and I are today.” Bitterness, cynicism, arrogance, puffery: Open A Little History to any paragraph, and it’s as if they had never been. Ernst Gombrich’s sensibility is both a mystery and a language.
Mindy Aloff’s anthology, Dance Anecdotes, will be published in 2006 by Oxford University Press.