Emmerson writes history as if it were journalism, a daily tally of happenings that depend on chance and have unforeseeable consequences. Narrated entirely in the present tense, his enormous book accompanies the blundering of politicians from Washington to Istanbul as they discover that “it is much harder to end a war than to start one”; it treats the past as a farrago of miscalculations and mishaps, every bit as confusing as the present... The fragmented form of Crucible matches its content. “How,” asks the zany dadaist Tristan Tzara, “can one contemplate ordering the chaos of humankind’s infinite, formless variation?” Though never formless, Emmerson’s book dramatises that variegated chaos, dodging to and fro across the globe and veering between tragedy and farce, high politics and low culture.
Most historians, confronted with this concatenation of turmoil, would attempt to impose order, offering explanation for the course that events took. Not so Charles Emmerson, a freelance historian from Australia. He provides little in the way of reflection or analysis, choosing instead to recreate the chaos of 1917-24 through a kaleidoscope of random moments from the lives of an eclectic group of participants. What does it all mean? Emmerson never says. Perhaps nothing. The past is bedlam, analysis simply contrivance.
As the title suggests, it is not simply the events and attendant neuroses of these immediate postwar years that Crucible addresses, but also the world to which they gave birth... All this is cleverly, sometimes brilliantly done, but at the same time there is a risk in writing history that focuses as heavily as Crucible does on the role of the individual. There are obvious advantages in providing immediacy and colour, and this book has bags of both, but in writing ‘the collective diary of an era’ there is not just the danger facing any diary writer – the temptation to write about things that are not in themselves interesting – but also the risk of losing sight of the wider sweep of events in a blizzard of mundane detail. It is a hard temptation to resist – trivia has its own seductive appeal – and this, I suspect, is a book that will polarise readers. It is a bolder, more imaginative work than 1913 and yet one that offers some hostages to fortune. It seems almost, at times, as if Emmerson is not quite sure who his audience is. For an author who writes so well and whose book is so firmly rooted in scholarship, he shows a curious determination to disguise his academic pedigree.