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His two sons born 35 years apart , Felix and Thomas, Jr.

The Beauty of Multigenerational Novels

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, the distinguished French historian, has, in his book Montaillou, demonstrated his ability to ferret out of ancient documents lively and realistic pictures of daily life in a far-off medieval past Smithsonian, March Now he has used the reminiscences of the three Platters to do the same for the 16th century. At that moment, the changeless patterns of medieval life in the case of villages like Montaillou, patterns that went back thousands of years began breaking up, and the modern Western world, the world almost everyone lives in today, began to emerge.


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The 16th century in western Europe was in so many ways a prefiguration of the 20th: rising prosperity, rising population, rising prices, an immense expansion of physical and intellectual horizons, a globalization of the economy, revolutions in religion and the arts and technology and social structures and ways of looking at the world. The dark specter of increasing poverty, crime, new and horrifying diseases, ferocious ideological wars and persecutions also loomed. The Platters were only marginally aware of these vast changes going on around them, but they knew how to take advantage of them.

Like most people of all times and places, they were chiefly concerned with their local and immediate needs and desires. They were aware of the discovery of America, but the only way they perceived it was through the presence of new phenomena in their daily lives, such as Brazil nuts or turkeys. When Felix Platter once was shown a statue of Joan of Arc, who had been burned barely a century before, he had no idea who she was. But in their daily choice of what to do and how to do it, they were very aware of what was going on.

Thomas Platter knew that in these new days of expansion and the revival of learning, it was economically advantageous to know how to read books, and that the recent invention of Mr. Gutenberg's in Germany had made books for the first time in human history available to all kinds of people, not just the thin upper crust.

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He may not have known that this invention lay at the cutting edge of technology long before jet aircraft, Gutenberg had used titanium in his ink and was going to change the world, as drastically as the steam engine would change it two centuries later and electronics in our own time. A self-taught scholar but he knew that he had to learn how to read and to write--Latin of course, it was the only respectable language--and he learned when he was 19 or He learned it while he was rope-making, hiding his copy of Plautus in the heaps of hemp he was braiding into rope.

He learned Hebrew and Greek, which were being rediscovered after centuries of loss, and he earned his living for a while by teaching Basel's top intellectual brass the Hebrew lessons that he had learned by himself in books the night before. What kept him going and his sons, too , obstinately and single-mindedly and with remarkable success, was the desire to work up, one step at a time, the social and economic ladder.


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He was intent upon using his brains, his skills and his boundless ambitions to keep acquiring not only more money, but also more ease and comfort and respect and recognition. There have always been people trying to be upwardly mobile, but before the advent of the 16th century, few cared to talk about them and they rarely wrote down their own stories because poor children never learned how to read and write. Pursuing prosperity Thomas Platter remembered too well the bottomless sea of poverty and filth and ignorance out of which he had come, the sea in which his ancestors and almost everyone else had lived for thousands of years.

He did whatever he could to survive.

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He made soap, he made ropes; eventually he had the foresight to take up printing. He speculated in real estate; he planted vineyards where there had been only barren land; he gave lessons and took in boarders to pay off his debts; he became headmaster of a school; he became in Basel, at least a leading citizen, a celebrity. His little son Felix worked for him when he started his printing business, folding paper till his fingers bled. But compared with his father, he was born in luxury. He rode horseback while his father walked his father, a tough old bird, could cover more miles in a day on foot over the primitive Swiss roads than Herr Doktor Professor Felix could in the saddle.

Felix identified in advance, says Le Roy Ladurie, "with the professors of medicine, the deans and rectors who treated dukes and princes, the important academics whom he saw strutting down the streets of Basel in their velvet costumes, followed by servants on horseback. That early collection of unusual objects contained everything from rare stones to Native American moccasins, stuffed crocodiles to a live elk.

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For another century or more the Platters would count among the quality, the top people of Basel. They were, of course, selfish and ambitious, but they were not bad people; they lived the life of their times. Thomas might be merciless in his money dealings, but when a pair of destitute refugees arrived in Basel from Munich, thrown out of their home because they were Protestants, and came to his door, he recognized the soap-maker and his wife who had given him a roof to sleep under 35 years before.


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Thomas had been a shoeless, homeless beggar, fighting dogs for food and scratching between floorboards for crumbs of bread; he took the couple in and sheltered them to the end of their lives. The Platters, as they come across in this book, had plenty to put up with in their lives.

There were famines and the heartless cruelties of ideological wars, and above all the repeated visits of the plague, which took the lives of seven of Thomas Platter's ten children. Still, they had achieved their main goal, which was to be better off in their old age than in their youth. And as they moved into a new century, they left a richer, more dynamic, more enlightened world behind them than the one they were born into.

Continue or Give a Gift. Privacy Policy , Terms of Use Sign up. SmartNews History. EM: Yeah, I think so. I think with the short stories, short stories are quieter publications, generally speaking. What if people really really hate it? It felt like it had already been out in the world a little bit, and not so much with this. But I was born in Boston and moved back there when I was about seven and a half. And then in I moved to Texas and it feels like a different country to me.

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I love it. People are so mean. She just took great pleasure in saying no to them, which I do feel can sometimes be a New England-y trait. That is my experience of Texans. How did that come to be? EM: I essentially just went through this genealogy that he had written in the sixties. He was a professional genealogist and editor of a magazine called the American Genealogis t for quite awhile, and I just took names out.

I just popped them right out. The first two I had were Bertha Truitt and Dr. Leviticus Sprague. I just wanted to think about the names suggested. KH: Genealogy and legacy seem to be themes that you come back to in your fiction. Part of it is because of my grandfather is something that I was really aware of, especially on that side of my family, the McCracken side. She thought that they were a brother and sister who had died in Europe before the family had come to Iowa in the 19th century.

And so I think I was always really interested, as I tend to be in any topic, in how it was true that genealogy was interesting but the opposite of that is also true. EM: Exactly. And those questions of what difference does it make, what difference could it possibly make if you were related by blood to somebody.