Kaplan’s Adriatic

I’m about 60 pages into Robert D. Kaplan’s Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Era and am still uncertain about

it. With such a big sounding title, in such a nice new cloth bound edition from Random House, it seems it should be more substantial than it is so far. I also can’t quite tell what the genre is, which is probably the source of my initial uncertainty at least — how do I approach this? what sort of a book is it?

And then there’s something annoying about the narrative voice: I can’t quite shake the sense that, while the voice is constructed around the sort of questioning of things and oneself that comes with deep engagement with places and people that are different from oneself, that same voice comes across as awfully certain about quite a lot, including itself. So while he often says explicitly things like, “I’m a traveler,” “traveling disrupts one’s sense of self, what one thinks one knows,” “I have often felt like I don’t know X,” he then turns around and pronounces judgment on just about everything from geopolitics and the future (!) role of China in the Mediterranean to the poetry of Ezra Pound (not a very good poet, according to Kaplan). This is not an attractive narrative approach and leaves me feeling a bit like there’s something dishonest going on in the telling, or maybe a lack of awareness on the part of the narrator.

I am thinking it might be mostly a memoir at this point, which helps a bit on the history front since some things are weirdly off with that. For instance, he spends several pages on Boethius but spells the name consistently without the “h” (Boetius). Where did that come from, and why didn’t a copy editor catch it? And when he refers to the author Jan Morris, who has three books in his bibliography under that name, he seems to feel the need to refer to her as James Morris and put the Jan in parentheses. Again, why?

Then there’s the coverage of the book itself, which from an area perspective is spotty but is much more acceptable as memoir. He does seem to be re-visiting some places he visited many years ago, except for the first two chapters, because of which I got the impression he was going to be exploring rather than re-visiting: again, different kinds of books. Otherwise, I can’t quite see why a book “on” the Adriatic would not include anything substantial about the Italian coast from south of Rimini, where he begins, to Apulia, where the Adriatic ends, or on any of the Croatian islands except for, as far as I can tell, Korčula; nor does there appear to be any dedicated content on northern Dalmatia (between Rijeka and Split), which is sort of a big part.

If it’s a memoir and not so much a research-based book about the Adriatic, then even that seems to require some further qualification, as it is mostly about what the author has read, a sort of bibliography with extensive personal commentary. That can be interesting if the books are good and the commentary is good. The books are often good, and some are new to me.

The commentary has mostly not been that interesting so far, though I did learn something from his summary of Francis Oakley’s The Emergence of Western Political Thought in the Latin Middle Ages, especially regarding Byzantium’s accommodation of the Ancient World’s notion of “sacral kingship” for what would eventually become Eastern Orthodoxy, in effect putting imperial authority in harmony with a clerical priesthood, which helped me understand how old and how different from Western forms of political power is the sort of merging that the current Russian president has tried to make use of in recent years.

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