Thursday, February 5, 2009

Paul Sonnino's "Mazarin's Quest"

Paul M. Sonnino is Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Mazarin's Quest: The Congress of Westphalia and the Coming of the Fronde, and reported the following:
I must beg to differ with the page 99 test. My own policy is to open a book on any page and start reading until I find a verb in the passive voice. I keep on reading until I find six more passive constructions, at which point I have either read the whole book or decided to throw it away.

Out of respect for the test, however, I went to page 99 of my Mazarin’s Quest: The Congress of Westphalia and the Coming of the Fronde, and I must admit that I did find one passive construction. However, I can say in my defense that it is taken (passive construction) from a letter of the Count de Peñaranda, the head of the Spanish delegation at the Congress, and my only complicity is to have translated it as he wrote it. I therefore invite readers to scour the pages of my book and not put it down until they find six passive constructions that they can pin entirely on me, at which point they may have read the entire book.

More fun, however, might be for them to search my book for pithy wise cracks. There are a lot of them, and not just to keep the reader awake. Going back one page from 99, we come to what may be one of the most brilliant bon mots in modern Anglophone literature, if I do say so myself. I write about Cardinal Mazarin “Never had a prophet been so prophetic, nor less persuaded of his own prophesies.” Even I didn’t realize how profound it was until I reread it! Then, since we are going backward, we might go to page 85, where I discuss one of Mazarin’s least favorite diplomats, the sanctimonious Count d’Avaux, for whom “the apparent readiness of the Imperialists to cave in to the most extreme Protestant demands was not the outcome of the war with which he intended to meet his maker.” Finally, and skipping a good many more one liners, let me call your readers' attention to a little sado-masochism in Mazarin’s relation with the Queen mother of France, Anne of Austria, who at one point in their encounters asked him what she could do to make him happy. “He exploited her advances,” I continue, “not for carnal, but for political purposes.” In other words he was not in it for the sex.

An overly generous commentator on the rear of the dust jacket, refers to me as “the premier historian of diplomatic relations in early modern Europe,” but whether this is or is not the case, one thing that the above quotes from my book may display is that I am the most unconventional. I write history with a blithe disregard for propriety, with a sense that diplomacy is not carried out (passive construction) in a vacuum, that the most famous men and women of the past disposed of their lives with the same eccentricities and quirks as you and I...and I don't make this up, just look at my footnotes. My book implies that all the erudition in the world cannot explain--it can only describe--the bizarre goals to which people dedicate themselves, whether like Mazarin, their summum bonum was to acquire the Spanish Low Countries for his adopted country, or like myself, who devoted fifteen years of my life and countless hours of jet lag in order to get into his head. A superficial reader of my book may conclude that I vilify Mazarin. If so, I vilify the human condition, which, rather than vilifying, I suspect I may be pitying.
Read an excerpt from Mazarin's Quest, and learn more about the book at the Harvard University Press website.

Visit Paul Sonnino's faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue