The Culture of the Europeans: 1800 to the Present, by Donald Sassoon

A culture-vulture's overkill
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What happens to old socialists after the end of history? In the aftermath of 1989 and all that, Donald Sassoon responded with 100 Years of Socialism : a tombstone-sized obituary of the European left in all its incarnations. Having conclusively demonstrated the failings, limits and liquidation of much of that political tradition, what does one do for an encore? Sassoon has retreated to the terrain of culture, doubled the number of centuries and gone long.

As someone who has had the temerity to present the public with some very long books, it behoves me to tread warily when commenting on another's exercise in gigantism. But, to be blunt, this is an extraordinarily long book - over 1,600 pages. Allow 200 of academic apparatus and we are still looking at 1,400 pages of prose. Call me old-fashioned, but at that length, I need a little Sturm und Drang: some overarching, even hyperbolic claims to make me engage.

European culture is surely a gigantic canvas for the construction of epic narratives, of wild but fruitful generalisations. Yet Sassoon's ambitions are curiously low-key: to tell "the story of what Europeans, over the last two centuries, have been doing to while away the hours during the course of their lives".

That's one way of understanding culture. At the risk of self-centeredness, I flipped to the index to look up three things which this European has whiled away an inordinate number of hours with: football, marijuana and reggae. Not the most savoury selection, I accept, but each surely has a small place in the culture of the continent, if only as markers of the significance of sports, drugs and Afro-Caribbean migration. Football merits a single reference in the index, to note its role as a driver in the uptake of pay-per-view television; on the others, the book is silent.

So what culture, and whose culture? Sassoon is no crude elitist. On the contrary, many of the old moral and aesthetic distinctions between high and low cultures are dismissed. Instead, he offers us a landscape defined by commercialisation. The book focuses on reproducible artefacts and performances, and the culture industries that have produced, sold and circulated them: the printed word, music both live and recorded, radio, TV, cinema and a whiff of the new digital technologies.

It is with little regret that he consigns oral cultures, subcultures, cults, ritual and tradition to the margins, renders sport and fashion completely invisible, and brackets the world of fine art for its continued dependence on the economics of uniqueness. One cannot help but think that this is a history of culture defined either by a curious obeisance to the centrality of capitalism and commidification, or by the tastes and habits of its author.

It is pretty clear that Sassoon reads novels but doesn't like live sport, listens to a lot of classical music but has not been to too many festivals, and no doubt prefers Champagne to cocaine: all perfectly reasonable choices for personal consumption, but not for structuring a history of commercial cultures, let alone culture in its broadest sense.

I also wonder if he likes a joke. I think he does, but you wouldn't know Europeans had been telling them these last two 200 years. The almost complete absence of any concern with humour and comedy is perplexing. I cannot see the point of writing about culture under communism, for example, without an account of the jokes that made it survivable.

Within its limited realms, there is much in Sassoon's book that is useful and interesting. For anyone who wants to do serious work on these areas, it can serve as an invaluable reference guide. The hard spade work of collation and description, of newspapers sales and readerships, the rise of and fall of publishing houses, the diffusion and mutation of core genres and forms, has been done.

However, as a continuous narrative account of European culture, this book is virtually unreadable. Not merely for it narrowness of range and its unbending level-headed seriousness, but for its coldness, its emotional reticence. Above all, it is an unyielding read for its refusal to engage, not with the realm of objects and commodities, but with the realm of meaning. The great insane clash of European political ideologies, the baroque invented nationalisms, the continent's visions, schemes and hopes are ghosts at the feast. Sassoon tells us how many copies Bridget Jones's Diary sold in paperback but not why the column made you laugh or squirm in the first place.

It is little wonder that Sassoon himself is slightly appalled by the vast complex of consumption he has identified, arguing that its function had been to "help us to while away the time. That so much effort should be expended in the pursuit of something so trivial", compared to "weighty matters such as war and peace, the struggle against disease, and the production of food and shelter - is the hallmark of civilization".

Old socialists, it seems, have been whiling away their time by reading novels, catching up with the movies and listening to music while they watch the world burn. That this appears such a trivial and pointless exercise seems to me not a function of these forms' content but of the author's refusal to wonder what they mean, what they say, and why they might matter.

David Goldblatt's global history of football, 'The Ball is Round', is published by Viking