The Fall of Paris, June 1940, Herbert Lottman; HarperCollinsPublishers (401 pages; hardcover, 1992)
"The essence of good history is well-directed research that knows what to do & [what to] leave out, & also [written] extraordinarily well - & it involves people in their books."
- An unidentified historian, paying a compliment to historian Martin Gilbert at the Politics & Prose Bookstore (WDC, 10/16/05; aired on CPAN3 on 01/27/08).
After finishing The Fall of Paris, initially, I was just going to quote the above as the reasons why - Lottman having failed on all counts save his extensive research - two stars would be a more than generous appraisal. End of review.
Then... as the various margin notes were assembled, came the gradual, staggering realization that I had just finished reading one of the worst history books ever written.
The writing: Tiresome, inert, paceless, tedious & verbose. We're all familiar with the mysterious process whereby after about the first 100 pages, an author finds his "voice" & the book finally becomes worth reading. With this in mind, on or about page 254 of The Fall of Paris is where I suggest you begin.
Despite this purportedly being a serious academic work, footnotes were not used.
Worse, the "Sources" at the end of the book:
A) Do not provide The Fall's respective page numbers that should correspond to the pages of the published books listed as sources.
B) If you want to check a source, you possibly may have to read the entire book that is listed as a source.
The page numbers of the histories & memoirs used in the preparation & writing of The Fall are also not provided (what is listed: The names of the authors, book titles, where published, publishers, & years of publication. Hypothetical example: "André Lemoine, Adieu, Paris: Gallimard, 1972").
(How to competently/conscientiously footnote: See Gordon Brooke-Shepard's "November 1918," Little, Brown and Company, 1981, in which footnotes read, for example: "p. 117. l. [line] 4. Balkan battle strengths in 1915. Luigi Villari, "The Macedonian Campaign, p. 23.")
C) There is no separate, alphabetically-arranged bibliography of sources (books, magazines, newspapers, archive files of unpublished materials, personal interviews, etc.).
Was André Lemoine's "Adieu" used as a source? Start checking, on page 405. Persevere, if necessary, for the next eighteen pages.
D) "Index" Issues (related to & overlapping with "Unclear references, clumsy introductions," etc., see below) arose with the following individuals & entities:
Clare Booth Luce (American journalist, later congresswoman, & since 1935, wife of publisher Henry Luce); Alfred Duff Cooper (English prime minister Winston Churchill's minister of information in 1940 & later, British ambassador to France, 1944-48);
Hans Thilo Schmidt (German civilian; traitor); a "General Schmidt" (brother of Hans); General Rudolf Schmidt (name found in the index & yet, not mentioned on the page provided; possibly but not necessarily the same person as "General Schmidt");
"Rex" (French émigré from Germany, aka, "Stallman," first name unknown & "Rodolphe Lemoine"; French spymaster "handler" of H.T. Schmidt); Paris-Soir (Parisian newspaper); & a residential section of Paris, Belleville.
E) The book's wonderful map of Paris - executed perfectly with clarity, symmetry & grace - lacks a compass, with which the reader could instantly comprehend the main routes of the tens of thousands of war refugees fleeing Belgium & Northern France who were flowing into & out of the French capital in 1940.
Other features of a book that HCP should be forever ashamed of having published (some representative examples are provided):
F) Amateurish expositions; bad writing; cheap shots; factually dubious, contradictory or incorrect assertions; & illogical chronology;
- Cheap Shots: In the tragic context of an overwhelming national (& international) catastrophe, was it really necessary for Lottman to cattily remark that French PM Paul Reynaud looked like "Mickey Mouse"? (p. 10);
- Factually Dubious: "Leopold's [Belgium's] surrender had been an act unprecedented in history" (p. 134; this overlaps into "Wrong Words" - see below - with "unprecedented" being ignorantly employed to describe circumstances that were probably "very unusual");
- Factually Incorrect: "In the end, all of the [British, French, & Belgian] troops [initially stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk] got out of the trap [by naval evacuation]. Not a single soldier remained at Dunkirk to fall into German hands" (p. 170).
G) Is for "Gibberish":
- "On February 26, after dark, enemy reconnaissance plans flew over the Paris region... that [same] night there were sirens - but no planes" (p. 6).
- The only way you can resolve this is that the planes were actually UFOs, which means that they were there - but couldn't exist.
H) Is for historical "Fop Speak":
- Lottman's pretentious narrative interruptions "of course," indeed," "certainly"; &, above all - usually surfacing when the point he is laboring to make is already perfectly obvious - the gratuitous & irritating "indeed" (all of this possibly taking a cue from the preposterously quasi-italicized corporate title of the book's publisher, "HarperCollinsPublishers");
I) Is for inane remarks; inept, confusing, or ridiculous analogies & comparisons; incorrect or tortured verb tenses (with one dual qualifier, see "Not English"); the incompetent use of the word "but" (seriously!); & missing reflexive pronouns & run-on or incomplete sentences (not intentionally written as such for "stylistic effect");
- "YOU ARE BITTER, DEFEATED... YOU SEE EVERYTHING IN BLACK! The remedy was Carter's Little Liver Pills" (p. 186) - read a stock newspaper advertisement, with text left unchanged after May 10, 1940 & with Paris by June 4th reeling from the impending German attack on the French capital.
- "Untoppable. END the paragraph right there. You've made your point, brilliantly." Not Lottman, who couldn't resist adding an inane & incomprehensible comment about another advertisement that had appeared on the same day.
- Also up for an Inanity Award is the phrase, "surrounded on three sides" (p. 252). Gee, what could be wrong with that description?
J) "Not English" (with one dual qualifier, see "incorrect or tortured verb tenses"); serial comma typing & other punctuation errors;
- "N.E." is shorthand for "not written in English" (p. 335):
- "The three officers held their pistols in outstretched arms, ready to expend their twenty-four bullets, but targets lacked" (s/be, "but enemy soldiers did not appear").
K) Verbosity: Dozens of examples noted & possibly dozens more exist, the combined effect of which tells us that the editing of The Fall was -at the very least - performed in a perfunctory & unprofessional manner;
L) Unclear references, clumsy introductions & the inept introduction of full, formal names; words/phrases misplaced in sentences; & "Wrong Words."
- "Wrong Words." Has anyone else ever seen the word "prejudicial" so incompetently (& comically) employed? (p. 123):
- "An editorialist in the same [French newspaper,] `Le Figaro'... was aware of the frightful exodus [of civilian refugees & soldiers from defeated French divisions] from the north, resulting in traffic bottlenecks prejudicial to the military."
I shudder to think that Herbert Lottman - in 1992 (& possibly still today) a history professor at, of all places, Harvard University - actually had anything to do with the appraisal & grading of the writing of the students enrolled in his classes.
The anecdote for "The Fall of Paris - June 1940"?
It is - conveniently enough but not ironically - "Is Paris Burning?," the superb history of the retaking of the city by the Allied military forces in August 1944 (written by Larry Collins & Dominique Lapierre; Simon & Schuster, 1965).
And reading IBP will pay an auxiliary dividend - the rude but necessary reminder of how the general standards of American publishers were adulterated in the decades following the publication of "Is Paris Burning?"